Things That Make You Go “Hmmmm…”

Someone in the PR department at the NRDC or a sister organization is earning their keep…

From the NY Times, July 3:

Ten years have gone by since a modest but important moment in American environmental history: the dismantling of the 917-foot-wide Edwards Dam on Maine’s Kennebec River.

The Edwards Dam was the first privately owned hydroelectric dam torn down for environmental reasons (and against the owner’s wishes) by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Bruce Babbitt, the interior secretary at the time, showed up at the demolition ceremony to promote what had become a personal crusade against obsolete dams. The publicity generated a national discussion about dams and the potential environmental benefits – to water quality and fish species – of removing them.

It certainly helped the Kennebec and its fish, and dams have been falling ever since. According to American Rivers, an advocacy group and a major player in the Edwards Dam campaign, about 430 outdated dams (some of them small hydropower dams like Edwards) have been removed with both public and private funding. In one case, the removal of a small, 50-foot dam on Oregon’s Sandy River was paid for entirely by the electric utility that owned it in order to improve salmon runs.

More lies ahead. Three dams that have severely damaged salmon runs in Washington State are scheduled to come down in 2011. A tentative agreement has been reached among farmers, native tribes and a power company to remove dams on California’s Klamath River, the site of a huge fish kill several years ago attributed mainly to low water flows caused by dams.

From the LA Times, July 6:

Politicians and stakeholders have steadfastly resisted the painful solution of dam removal while hoping for a miracle. That hope turned out to be a one-way road on a dead-end street, and in many respects they’re now blaming the court for their current predicament. With few exceptions, the region’s politicians, past and current, have been challenging the recommendations of scientists (including dam removal and increasing the spills over the dams) for more than a decade. Former Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) famously vowed to chain himself to a dam rather than surrender, a prospect relished by many conservation groups.

Throughout this stalemate, fish counts have continued to fall, and the underlying science is clear: In river after river where dams have been removed, native fish populations have rebounded and thrived. As the government’s former chief aquatic biologist, Don Chapman, concluded, dam removal is the most effective strategy for saving endangered native fish stocks from extinction.

This was the conclusion reached by the Idaho Statesman newspaper back in 1997 after it conducted a yearlong study of the Snake River dams. The paper reported that the economic benefits of a healthy fishery — and the resultant tens of thousands of jobs — would swamp the benefits of leaving the dams in place.

Dozens of reports by natural resources economists have agreed. Among other things, they describe the dams as economic sinkholes, which produce less than 3% of the region’s power, do nothing for flood control, irrigate only a handful of big farms and subsidize transportation costs (at the expense of taxpayers and salmon) for wheat farmers in Idaho and eastern Washington.

Now preserving fish populations is damn important (sorry) and a good thing to be sure. And I have no doubt that the Army Corps of Engineers never met a river it didn;t want to damn. But hydropower is 3.4% of national energy production (Excel), and 63% of our renewable energy production. I’d love to know what percent of the national hydropower budget we’re talking about taking offline here…

3 thoughts on “Things That Make You Go “Hmmmm…””

  1. “But hydropower is 3.4% of national energy production (Excel), and 63% of our renewable energy production.”

    A couple of questions for any ecologists/engineers out there, as I sit enjoying, at least for the moment, the air-conditioning:

    How “renewable” should we consider small hydro, taking into account substantial and possibly irreversible fishery damage, upriver siltation, and some other interesting watershed effects?

    Can old “small hydro” dams be replaced with substantially more “fish friendly” and more efficient newer “small hydro” dams?

  2. . . . and what of those dams which are now considered part of the scenic vista, and/or are of historic importance? I ask this having just learned that “the dam at Kent, Ohio”: , where I spent my high-school years, has been “remedied” in interesting ways; it was originally installed in the Cuyahoga (for those of you who remember the 70’s, that’s the “burning river”) to run canal boat locks and supply water power. It long stopped having those functions (there aren’t many canal boats running on the Cuyahoga these days) and EPA had the view that it was substantially impairing water quality on the river.

    BUT said the locals, everyone was sort of used to it, and the “waterfall” as the water went over the top of the dam was in lots of pictures from everyone’s high school days, and the dam was a historic dam…


    eventually they re-cut the river channel to bypass the thing completely

    BUT to keep the original look, as nearly as I can tell,

    they converted the dam into a REALLY BIG recirculating fountain, with a pool at the top, behind the dam, another pool at the bottom (neither of them connected to the actual river flow) and a pump which recirculates the water for the “waterfall”!


  3. Not my field, but I can ballpark it for you.

    How “renewable” should we consider small hydro, taking into account substantial and possibly irreversible fishery damage, upriver siltation, and some other interesting watershed effects?

    Fishery damage doesn’t really affect the ‘renewable’ nature of the power plant. Fish, no fish, it still produces power. It’s really an external cost that would need to be weighted against the externalities of other competitive power generation systems. For example, if global warming is a potential economic disaster, is lower fish populations in dammed rivers a viable tradeoff for lower carbon emissions?

    Upriver siltation and other side effects are correctible with proper maintenance (dredging etc) and should be factored into the cost of the power produced. With proper maintenance, the hydroelectric plant should be able to produce power until some major geological/climactic shift moves the river. So it’s renewable, but again with external costs that need to be factored in to the cost/benefit analysis.

    Can old “small hydro” dams be replaced with substantially more “fish friendly” and more efficient newer “small hydro” dams?

    ‘Fish friendly’ and ‘more efficient’ are essentially in direct opposition. The possible power output of a hydro-electric dam is a function of the mass of water going through the system and the height the water falls (which generates the kinetic energy that operates the turbine system). Fish on the other hand dislike swimming uphill so the more water allocated to making the slope fish friendly via side channels, fish steps/ladders/escalators/elevators/teleporters/etc is water not making a nice long vertical plunge through the turbines.

    My basic opinion is that the environmental suitability of any power generation method can be determined by how much is places us in competition with other species for resources. Solar for example uses land, which is a resource ALL other species need, thus it is in competition with (and bad for) everything. So solar on already in use (sunk cost) land is great. Scaled beyond that so that we’re wallpapering over deserts means environmental destruction. The further you scale it up the more destruction you get.

    People forget, but other than atmospheric pollution effects, fossil fuels are actually extremely environmentally friendly. Very minimal land usage, both in production, distribution, and usage. No plant or animal species rely on having it around. It was a huge improvement over the prior wood/charcoal/draft animal/water power systems it replaced.

    Frankly I consider it a step backwards to shift to any power generation system that moves us back to scaling on a linear basis with land usage. We’d do just fine without hydroelectric imho.

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