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The new dam busters

Speaking at the annual conference of the Ecological Society of America in August, US Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, claimed to be celebrating the destruction of dams. He described how he tours the US, with sledgehammer in hand, visiting dams scheduled for removal.

‘I suspect that this breaks with tradition,’ Babbitt said. ‘Six decades ago President Franklin Roosevelt and his Interior Secretary Harold Ickes toured the country to dedicate dams, new dams, powerful dams…Many of these dams have become monuments, expected to last forever but you could say that forever just got a lot shorter.’ Babbitt listed the removal of dams in the US over the past year. These have included: •Four dams on the Menominee river between Wisconsin and Michigan.

•The 55-year-old Quaker Neck dam on the Neuse river.

•The Edwards dam on the Kennebec river in Maine.

•Mcpherrin dam on Bhutte Creek in California.

•Bear Creek dam in Oregan.

• The Administration has also made plans to remove two dams on the Elwha river on the Olympic Peninsula.

Babitt said that there is now ‘a deep, widespread understanding that America overshot the mark in our dam building frenzy’. Referring to newspaper reports which have named him ‘the nation’s dam-remover-in-chief’, Babbitt remarked: ‘The truth is I have not brought a sledgehammer to a single dam that was not approved for removal by consensus of the inhabitants of the watershed. Each community made a thoughtful, deliberative choice in how they could restore their river.’ Babitt said that larger dams pose more complex problems. There are bigger stakeholders involved — entire industries, the price of electricity for millions of people and water storage for cities.

Yet even when a community decides that a dam should remain, he said, it may discover progressive new ways to operate it to rectify some of the ecological damage to the river.