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Babbitt deals the first blow for dam removals

US Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, tore off a part of the Matilija dam in southern California as part of a countrywide campaign to breach old dams and restore natural fish habitats. Demolition of this 50m variable arch dam has been dubbed as the highest dam in the world to be torn down.

The dam on Matilija Creek, a major tributary of the Ventura river, was built in 1949 to control flooding in Ventura County. Environmen- talists have said its removal will help restore salmon runs and sand-depleted beaches. The US Bureau of Reclamation estimates that the cost of dam removal and restoration of the river could be as high as US$180M.

Babbitt has been associated with similar dam removals throughout the country. Earlier in northern California Babbit kicked off the demolition of the 6m high Saeltzer dam, near Redding, to open up about 19km of Deer Creek to salmon. The dam was constructed in 1903 and its removal is estimated to cost about US$5.8M.

The issue has sparked off a bitter debate in the Pacific Northwest, where environmentalists have called for the removal of four dams on the Snake river to protect salmon spawning grounds.

However, Clinton administration officials have said they will not recommend breaching the dams for at least eight years in order to give non dam breaching, salmon recovery plans time to work.