A River Runs Free Again

Dec 18, 2011 By Arati Rao
Arati Rao's picture

We humans have altered the landscape we live in, more than any other species. Dams, which stop rivers, dot our lands affording some people benefits but destroying many ecosystems and affecting other lives. In October, however, the ecological damage caused by a few dams began to be reversed.

A couple of dams almost a hundred years old were marked for taking down -- the result of many years of persuasion by local tribes and environmentalists.

The two dams

The Condit Dam on the White Salmon river and the dam on the river Elwha – both in the US state of Washington – are current examples of this reversal. While the former was taken down in dramatic fashion, the latter is being slowly dismantled over three years. Both actions, however, are the result of studies and years of campaigning by local tribes and environmentalists.

Dams are physical barriers on a river. Manmade ones are usually concrete mega-structures, rising high and impenetrable. What does it do to the environment? Well, for one, it stops the river from its natural course. This causes the formation of a lake or reservoir behind the dam, which submerges land. This land could house animals and trees as well as humans. Usually the local tribes or local communities living at the site of a proposed dam have to be relocated. The submerged forests are lost. Species that live in rivers are also disrupted – as is the case with these two dams in question.

Hope for the salmon

The champion species in this case is the salmon. Studies say that since the dam was constructed on the Elwha in the early 20th century, salmon numbers dropped from 400,000 to only 3,000. Observers say you can still see salmon trying to swim upstream and hit their heads against the dam. Taking down the dams would mean that eventually these salmon will again have the river to themselves, and access to the cold headwaters of the river which are so essential for their breeding. The hope is that the salmon numbers will rise again. In addition, many more birds and mammals will benefit, returning the river to the rich life it once led.

Cost benefits

What about the electricity generated by these dams? Well, it turns out that the dams are old, there is much silt from years of accumulation and the amount of money required for their upkeep is much more than the amount of money required for demolishing them! The electricity is likely to be obtained from another source.

And so, late in October this year, the dam on the Elwha began to be bulldozed. And the one on the Condit was blasted. The blast was so strong that the authorities were careful to evacuate everyone – especially hikers and curious onlookers from the area, for they could have had their eardrums ruptured.

Capturing the action

Andy Maser set up many cameras that would capture a time-lapse (where the camera takes several photos at regular intervals and then is played back like a video) of the Condit dam removal and it has proven spectacular.