America thrived by choking its rivers with dams. Now it’s time to undo the damage.

The country must decide the fate of more than 90,000 dams, many of which are in disrepair.

Dams fueled america’s growth by choking its rivers. Is it time to restore nature’s infrastructure?
Brian Klutch

The fish is nearly three feet long, and as it swims unhurriedly past the viewing window in Lower Granite Dam, Theresa Wilson glances up from her knitting. “Chinook,” she says, tapping her computer keyboard once to record its passage. The salmon pauses as if to be admired. Its mottled scales flash as it moves against the current of the Snake River. Then it darts away, bound upstream to the place where it was born.

Salmon and trout are anadromous: They hatch in rivers, spend their lives at sea, then return to their birthplaces to reproduce and die. Here on the Snake in eastern Washington, that means traversing four hydroelectric dams, an arduous undertaking few complete.

The Lower Granite is the last barrier between this chinook and its spawning grounds. It is one of 13 salmon and trout species in the Pacific Northwest that the federal government lists as threatened or endangered. The concrete and steel structure in its way stands 151 feet tall and spans a gorge, its turbines sending froth churning downstream. Clearing the wall requires that a swimmer ascend a spiral structure called a fish ladder to a resting pool, where a viewing portal lets Wilson keep track of them for University of Washington biologists and others monitoring the impact dams have on piscine populations.

According to legend, the Snake brimmed with so many fish when the explorers Lewis and Clark arrived in 1805 that one could walk from bank to bank on their backs. Today the animals pass so rarely that Wilson spends much of her eight-hour shift making socks.

As recently as the middle of the 20th century, nearly 130,000 adult chinook returned to these waters in a single year. Around 10,000 made the journey in 2017, a dip that threatens the health of the river and all it sustains. More than 130 species of insects, birds, fish, and mammals—from bears in the Teton Range to orcas in the Pacific—rely on salmon for food. Even plants and trees benefit, drawing nutrients from their waste and remains.

Across the nation, the scenario repeats. Atlantic sturgeon, once a hallmark of the eastern seaboard, can reach only about half of their historic spawning grounds. Some 40 percent of the 800 or so varieties of freshwater fish in the US, and more than two-thirds of native mussels, are rare or endangered, in part because man-made barriers have altered their ecosystems. Reservoirs disrupt currents, altering water’s velocity and temperature. That can harm its quality and interrupt the reproductive cycles of aquatic creatures. Stanching a river stops the distribution of sediment and the formation of logjams, two things critical to creating healthy habitat. It also eliminates floodplains and natural meanders, both of which prevent the banks from overflowing.

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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