Monday, November 17, 2008

Removing the damn dams

Felicity Barringer reports in the New York Times on an agreement recently made by the federal government, Oregon, California, and the private company PacifiCorp, which generates electricity, to remove four dams on the Klamath River. The details are sparse and the time line is all but certain, but I can't help but smile whenever I hear discussion about dam removal.

The widespread damming of the American West over a period of nearly 100 years has done incalculable damage to the West's aquatic ecosystems and native fish. The control of water has been at the heart of the struggle for control of the West, and up until the 1990's, wild nature was always given the short end of the stick. But little by little, nature is being given a chance to reclaim its wildness and run a little more free. Slowly, water diversion is being forced to give way to water conservation, and dams are being removed.

John Muir, one of the founders of the modern environmental consciousness, died broken hearted. He and the Sierra Club lost its battle to prevent the construction of O'Shaughnessy Dam, completed in 1923, which dammed of the Hetch Hetchy River flowing west out of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, just north of Yosemite Valley. Muir said,

Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.

When I was a kid growing up in California, and spending as much time as I possibly could in the Sierras, the removal of O'Shaughnessy Dam was the Holy Grail of the local conservation community, ranking high on the list of "Not in My Lifetime" impossibilities, right up there with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid, and the election of an African-American to the U.S. Presidency.

Somewhere, John Muir is surely smiling. Dam removal on the Klamath. Maybe, just maybe, restoring the Hetch Hetchy is not so impossible afterall.

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