America was shaped by its rivers—more than 250,000 in all—and since Colonial times we have bent them to our will. The Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees dams owned by the federal government, lists more than 90,000 in its national inventory. Tens of thousands more remain unregistered. “Think about that number,” then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt told a meeting of the Ecological Society of America in 1998. “That means we have been building, on average, one large dam a day, every single day, since the Declaration of Independence.” The best of them generate power, facilitate navigation, and slake our thirst. But many, perhaps the majority, are no longer essential.
The falling cost of renewable energy and continued decline of manufacturing renders many of these structures unnecessary. Others require expensive maintenance. Seven in 10 are more than 50 years old and many are falling into disrepair, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which pegs the cost of upgrading the 17 percent it deems a “high hazard” (meaning a failure could kill people downstream) at $45 billion. Overhauling the rest will cost many times that. In response, a growing number of scientists and environmentalists have called for razing dams that are obsolete or dispensable and letting more rivers—nature’s original infrastructure—once again run free.
Many of those advocates consider the Elwha River 50 miles west of Seattle a model. Salmon and trout had all but vanished before the National Park Service breached two dams there in 2014, reviving the waterway and surrounding wilderness with little effect on power supplies. Restoration champions believe the same will happen on the Snake, where they’ve waged a decades-long fight against the Corps, regional politicians, and farmers who argue that the hydroelectric power it generates remains essential and that knocking the system down might not save the animals.
As pressure mounts to “free the Snake,” the Corps and others are considering similar projects nationwide, a trend that could reshape what Duke University hydrologist Martin Doyle calls “our riverine republic.”
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