by Scott Sadil
In 1973, while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still persisted in its long history building dams willy-nilly throughout the West, Jim Harrison’s second novel, A Good Day to Die, introduced readers to a trio of love-torn anti-heroes driven by the compelling if somewhat adolescent notion of blowing up a fictional, fish-blocking dam.
Granted, young readers may also have been attracted to the novel’s fervid portrayal of both drugs and sex, topics which, for many of us, had already found purchase in our spasming imaginations.
But the novel idea – far more radical then than it sounds today – was that dams, despite their alleged and apparent utilitarian benefits, might not necessarily be such good things after all.
As important, perhaps, was the notion that opponents to dams and the harm they invariably do to both natural and cultural environments may well find their contrary positions futile unless they resort to drastic measures.
Though tame by comparison to the effects of dynamite or detonated ammonia nitrate, the recent $33 billion proposal by U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) to breach the four lower Snake River dams, in hopes of invigorating declining Columbia basin salmon and steelhead runs, seems drastic in its own right – and certainly promises to fuel explosive debate.
You can probably guess where my sympathies lie.
In the past decade I’ve witnessed firsthand what dam removal can do for the health and integrity of fish populations in two small Columbia River tributaries, both rivers practically within sight of my fly tying desk. Powerdale Dam was removed from Oregon’s Hood River in 2010; Condit Dam, on the White Salmon River in Washington, was breached in 2011. The latter offered the most dramatic results, opening dozens and dozens of miles of salmon and steelhead spawning habitat following the vasectomy-like construction, performed a century before, of a dam that cut off anadromous fish from the entire river four miles above its mouth.
For me, however, the most telling change on the unobstructed White Salmon has been the sudden appearance, while fishing for summer steelhead, of big resident rainbows in the lowest runs, sixteen and eighteen-inch fish you would have occasionally found higher up, above the dam, but are now free to migrate throughout the system. The breaching of Condit Dam helped create, after a couple of seasons, long beds of gravel ideal for salmon redds; the resident rainbow trout quickly figured out where they wanted to be, come late summer and fall, for a nutritious and presumably tasty diet of salmon eggs.
It’s happening throughout the region. Few events proved more stirring than the immediate arrival of summer steelhead to the Elwha River, at the north end of the Olympic Peninsula, following the largest dam removal project in history. Four of the eight dams on the Klamath River, the most significant watershed for anadromous fish between the Sacramento River and the Columbia Basin, are scheduled for imminent removal. The Rogue, the Sandy, and a host of other Northwest watersheds have all had major obstructions to fish migration breached since the turn of the century.
And those lower Snake River dams? We can only guess the efficacy of a restoration project of this scale; it doesn’t take too much imagination, however, to envision the benefits of draining four enormous reservoirs for the sake of uncovering 150 miles of mainstem spawning riffles.
Simpson’s proposal, regardless of cost, certainly beats the freelance service of improvised explosives. The title of Jim Harrison’s slender novel comes from the popular saying attributed to Nez Percé warriors prior to heading into battle; the Miniconjou Sioux, Harrison’s narrator tells us, shortly before he and his friends assault the target dam, also used to say, “Take courage, the earth is all that lasts.” What we can be sure of is that dams, like dinosaurs and wooden boats and us, will someday all be gone, too, reminiscent of the “shattered visage” of Shelley’s Ozymandias, colossal wrecks from an antique land.
Maybe that day has arrived.
As a young traveler Gray’s Angling Editor Scott Sadil accidentally used the disassembled parts of an ancient wooden feed bin for winter firewood in the mountains of northern Spain. Mitigation proved, as usual, an all but empty gesture.