Steelhead, lower Columbia River tributary

by Scott Sadil

It’s no coincidence, I think, that the same year we’re witness to the largest dam-removal project in the history of the world, with the first of four dams already breached along Oregon’s and northern California’s Klamath River, Patagonia Works has published Cracked, a new book by Steven Hawley, in which the author argues, convincingly, that the time has come to remove the countless dams across the country that have benefited wealthy patrons and corporations, not the taxpayers who paid for them, at a frightful cost to the health and integrity of watersheds, wildlife, the environment as a whole and in many cases cultures dependent on free-flowing rivers since long before the first European immigrants arrived.

That’s a mouthful. Sadly, the discussion today appears removed from the logic of science, economics, and strict cost-benefit analyses, descending instead into the realm of partisan politics, where the good of the order rarely complements the docket.

Barely a false cast into this ditty and I can already imagine lines being drawn, sides taken, as the research and documentation included in Hawley’s far-reaching book are immediately dismissed, or rejected outright, readers digging in their heels, ready to defend their positions, pro or con, feeling no need whatsoever to investigate the most comprehensive, up-to-date review of the history of dams and why they are currently being removed, while at the same time new projects meet unprecendented opposition and, in countries all around the world, end up denounced and thwarted.

Another mouthful. It’s that kind of subject. As an angler hoping to conserve what’s best about the rivers and fisheries where I call home, I don’t apologize for my wish to see the removal of as many dams as possible, without jeopardizing anyone’s safety, but especially those many dams, reservoirs of silt and warm, degraded, evaporating water, that choke watersheds and block fish migrations throughout the West.

I’ve mentioned it before, but I live within minutes of two small rivers where dams were removed this century; both of these rivers have responded in surprising, heartening ways. The re-opening of spawning habitat to anadromous fish was predicted. What few of us considered beforehand was the sudden movement of resident trout into the lower reaches of the rivers, where these big robust rainbows come to feed on salmon eggs and macroinvertebrate populations enriched by the cold upstream water and now make up surprising local fisheries for those in the know.

And I’m delighted, I admit, by the bear tracks I’ve seen this fall on one of the sand bars, evidence of spawned-out, decaying salmon and the integrated health of a restored river and its reviving watershed.

Of course, those who don’t fish, or don’t live near a river, or don’t see or know the difference of a steelhead from a walleye or a shad, may wonder what all the fuss is about. Besides, don’t dams make for great places to enjoy the new Malibu wake boat or Sea-Doo?

Wild chinook salmon

Steven Hawley, in his new book Cracked, can do a much better and more level-headed job responding to such questions than I can. His answers may surprise you, too—although he tips his hand, perhaps, in the book’s subtitle: The Future of Dams in a Hot, Chaotic World.

Because it’s worth noting, while we’re here: There’s a lot more at stake than fish.    

Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil rarely stops wondering, in fall, when the next steelhead will eat his fly.