The Battle of the Dams

Those who think some of our rivers are a dammed shame argue for the structures to come down

Buck Adamire is through with the controversy. The logger and trapper fought for years to keep dams, and their reservoirs, on the Elwha River on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Now, blocked by the dams from their ocean and spawning grounds, Elwha salmon are dying in record numbers, and Adamire has relented.

Welcome to the contentious new world of dam removal. As development of natural resources is weighed against environmental protection, dams can no longer be taken for granted. North Carolina, Vermont and Wisconsin already have pulled down a number. But a complex national debate about safety, economic and environmental issues goes on. One-quarter of the nation's dams are 50 years old, and many need repair. Dams have contributed to the extinction of 106 native salmon and trout stocks in four Western states, despite hatching programs, fish passage, and barging. Yet, dams also provide nearly half of the nation's renewable energy — and their reservoirs are often popular recreation spots.

Writer Patrick Joseph talks with dam advocates and environmentalists from the Kennebec River in Maine to the Ocklawaha in Florida, and from Lake Powell in Arizona to the Pacific Northwest. Though the consequences of dam removal are often as debated as dams themselves, at least one fish advocate on the Elwha feels certain the river will benefit. "Remove the dams," he says, "and I don't see how it can't work."

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.