Dams Are Not Forever

THEY STARTED JUST after daybreak last week, the demolition crew wielding jackhammers and maneuvering backhoes. Breaking up the wooden boards, ripping out the pylons, they brought down one of the more modest alterations of the West's natural plumbing: the Western Canal Dam on Butte Creek, a tributary of Cali- fornia's Sacramento River. The little concrete-steel-and-wooden dam had provided irrigation water to 60,000 acres of rice fields. But now it is gone, and that stretch of Butte Creek, where chinook salmon had been decimated by four dams, ran free for the first time since the 1920s.

As demolition goes, it was nothing extraordinary. But as symbol, it was historic and a scene that will be repeated scores of times throughout the West in the coming years. On Butte Creek two more dams will come down next spring. On Washington's Elwha River, where two dams block half a million salmon, one is likely to be demolished by 2000 and another is in environmentalists' cross hairs. ""Dam removal is suddenly a viable option,'' says Daniel Beard of the National Audubon Society and former director of the federal agency in charge of many Western dams. ""Six months ago I couldn't have said that.''

For nearly a century local water districts and Congress have regarded any Western rivers that flowed to the sea unimpeded as a colossal waste--a waste of water that could be captured for farming and urban development, a waste of potential hydropower, a waste of potential recreation sites that could be created by backing up the great rivers into lakes. To harness the water, federal and state agencies, as well as private developers, have built more than 600 major dams this century in the arid West, from concrete behemoths like Hoover and Glen Canyon to unimposing piles like the Western Canal. Together, they helped turn cow towns like Los Angeles and Phoenix and Las Vegas into cities. They let farmers grow rice, alfalfa and cotton, three of the thirstiest crops known to agriculture, in the desert. But beginning in the 1970s, the huge dams became increasingly controversial. Not only do they prevent natural flooding, which keeps ecosystems healthy, but they also kill millions of valuable salmon migrating to the sea. And water and power from the dams are underwritten by federal dollars. Now, in an about-face that dam critics never dreamed they'd see, some of the structures are coming down.

In the boldest stroke yet, the Sierra Club proposed in February the draining of Lake Powell, which was created in 1963 with the completion of the 710-foot-high Glen Canyon Dam. This concrete monster in north-central Arizona backed up the Colorado River and put the spectacular Glen Canyon underwater. In September two House subcommittees held a hearing on what Rep. James Hansen called the ""bizarre idea.'' But if the Republicans hoped to ridicule it, vying with each other to get ""dumb'' and ""nutty'' into the Congressional Record, they fell short. ""The hearings legitimized the issue,'' says Adam Wehrbach, Sierra's president. Although many witnesses described the lake's value as recreation (2.5 million visitors a year, spending $400 million) and as a supplier of hydroelectric power and water, the public airing brought out one of the dirty secrets of Western dams. ""Large dams are not built because they are the right engineering solution, or the most economical solution, to a problem,'' says Beard. Instead, water projects have historically been a favorite source of pork-barrel spending, a way for congressmen to direct taxpayer dollars to their home district. Glen Canyon Dam, for instance, supplies 1.3 million kilowatts of electricity to Phoenix and small towns--only 3 percent of the total. The region has excess generating capacity anyway. And Lake Powell's water has never been drawn on.

The debate over Lake Powell is mostly symbolic, but the impending demolition of smaller dams is real. Dozens of small, aging dams in Oregon and Washington produce a few kilowatts and little else besides dead salmon. As the cost of mitigating that environmental damage begins to exceed the value of the dam, many will come down. Even the moderate Idaho Statesman newspaper endorsed removing four dams on the lower Snake River, and the Washington Water Power Co. said in September that the dam on the lower Elwha (map) ""probably should come out.'' More and more, Westerners are realizing that just because politicians in the 1930s cut deals to build dams, it doesn't mean that people in the 1990s have to live with them.