At 11:19 a.m., the barrier began to give way with just the faintest clang of metal striking concrete. But in political terms, the sledgehammer that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt took to the Quaker Neck Dam on Wednesday echoed clear to the Pacific Northwest.
Babbitt’s predecessors built reputations by damming rivers, not opening them up. But the work of his sledgehammer and a more effective 3,000-pound wrecking ball--along with a federal regulatory agency’s decision last month to remove a small hydroelectric dam in Maine--sent an unambiguous message to the West:
The unquestioning support the federal government once offered for dams is no longer as solid as the concrete, steel and earth structures themselves, especially if their destruction can restore natural habitat.
That shift is most important in the Pacific Northwest, including the vast Columbia River watershed, where salmon are threatened.
“I believe it’s coming at us. The message is sinking in,” said Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance.
The association of utilities, industries, farmers and others is dedicated to protecting the towering federal and privately owned dams that, beginning nearly a century ago, transformed agriculture, industry and transportation throughout the Northwest region with massive projects providing hydroelectric power and irrigation from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
Four years ago, Babbitt’s dream was to lean hard into a dynamite plunger and thus become the first secretary of the Interior to reduce to rubble a massive dam of the great Northwest watershed.
The quiet rolling hills on the outskirts of Goldsboro, planted each year with tobacco and cotton, offer none of the scenic drama of Washington state’s Olympic forests and ravines. And his sledgehammer lacked the punch of dynamite.
Nevertheless, the scaled-down attack left the Interior secretary satisfied, at least for the moment.
“We’ve gotten into a way of thinking,” Babbitt said in an interview, “that the dams are like the pyramids of Egypt: We don’t know when they were built, and we think they’ll last forever. But we shouldn’t be blinded by the presumption that nothing changes.
“What it underlines is that each place, each dam, is a site-specific reflection of culture, history, expectations, economic consequences and environmental benefits, all of which change over time,” he said.
The dam, 260 feet across and only 7 feet high, was completed across the Neuse (pronounced “noose”) River in 1952 to assure that there would be an ample supply of water during periods of drought to cool the condensers of a Carolina Power & Light Co. coal-fired electricity generating station.
But a 7-foot dam, minuscule by Western standards, may just as well be 200 feet high for most fish; they can’t jump it to reach their historic spawning pools.
So it is being replaced by a channel-blocking weir, a metal structure that will back up just enough water in a canal to meet the cooling needs while leaving the river itself free.
By removing the dam and clearing the debris from the river (an approximately two-week, $180,000 project that is being paid for by state, federal and private funds), engineers and scientists figure the breach will open a vast watershed--75 miles of the Neuse and more than 900 miles of tributaries--to the striped bass, American shad, hickory shad and short-nosed sturgeon. The fish spend most of their lives in the Atlantic Ocean until they migrate through the brackish Albemarle and Pamlico sounds and then upstream into the North Carolina hinterland to spawn.
“The striped bass population on the whole East Coast has improved dramatically during the past few years, and there’s every reason to think we’ll see a significant improvement on the Neuse River,” Buzz Bryson, a power company biologist, said.
That pleases Allen Mitchell, a 38-year-old mechanic at the power plant.
“I used to sit on the [river] banks with my grandfather. He’d tell me of the days of grandeur; the nets were so full they couldn’t get ‘em in the boat,” he said.
Then came the dam, he said, and the catch went from 500 fish to 15.
Official surveys bear him out.
The year before the dam was built, said Mike Wicker, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, commercial fishermen landed 700,000 pounds of fish from the Neuse. Last year, the catch was 25,000 pounds.
Across the breadth of the United States, there are nearly 75,000 dams. Perhaps none carries the symbolism of the Hoover Dam, steeped in the anguish wrought by the Great Depression, against which it offered the hope of jobs and agricultural bounty.
Or the Grand Coulee Dam, of equal emotional impact for its role in World War II, when it turned out power cheap enough to run the electricity-hungry aluminum factories crucial to building warplanes.
Most dams, however, are privately owned and offer neither such scale nor history.
David Brower, a noted conservationist, once said: “If you are against a dam, you are for a river.” That said, dams still often carry the status of a cultural icon, with which one tinkers only gingerly.
“Dams represent one of those features of human accomplishment that are a very tangible demonstration of our ability to conquer nature. So taking them out cuts very sharply against the grain,” said John Leshy, the Interior Department’s solicitor long involved in legal efforts surrounding dams and waterways.
Just 10 years ago, talking about removing dams would have been heresy among government officials. And only about 20 dams have been removed in recent years, most of them small structures in the upper Midwest destroyed for either environmental or safety reasons.
Only one dam, the structure in Maine that the federal Energy Regulatory Commission targeted, has been singled out for destruction against the wishes of its owners.
But now, dams are under increasing attack, a senior Interior Department official said, because environmentalist goals have broadened from pollution control and preservation of natural resources to a more aggressive restoration of wildlife habitat.
And with several hundred federally issued operating licenses for dams up for review in coming years, “the case will be hard to make to allow some of them to continue,” the official said.
Katherine Ransel, an attorney in Seattle for American Rivers Inc., a river advocacy group, has grown accustomed to Babbitt expressing his goal of presiding over the destruction of the two large dams blocking Washington’s Elwha River.
Congress has begun appropriating money to study such a course, but their demise could be years away.
She took heart from the steps taken in North Carolina.
“The relevance is, we’re not talking about it anymore. We’re doing it.”