We learned firsthand in Kent that one of the best unintended consequences of removing dams is how much it opens up the river to new passive and active recreational opportunities. When the City set out to open up the Kent Dam we knew all about the water quality improvements and the good things it would do for fish and aquatic life but it’s also been a great way to give more people an opportunity to enjoy the river in a personal way. From fishing to walking, biking, skipping stones, meditating and kayaking the river has become one of the favorite spots of residents of all ages and tastes for outdoor recreation. This story apparently is replaying itself at a rate of about 40 dam removal projects a year. Here’s an interesting piece from the New York Times that talks about this river revival all across the country.
The recent notice of favorable consideration for the City’s $250,000 state grant request (click here to read the news article) means that Kent Parks and Recreation will be able to improve access to and from the river in Kent which is exactly what these other cities are doing as well.
August 9, 2009
Dams Go Down, Uncorking Rivers for Kayakers
By MATTHEW PREUSCH
It was a warm May afternoon, and the blue water of the Sandy River in northern Oregon was frothing into white peaks and swirling eddies. Above this roiling current, Paul Kuthe, a kayaking instructor from Portland, steered his yellow kayak past the bleached stump of a fir embedded in the pebbly bank.
Not long ago, Mr. Kuthe said, this was all underwater, hidden under a two-mile-long reservoir created by the Marmot Dam, a hydroelectric plant that once hummed in the foothills east of Portland. Then two years ago, the 47-foot-tall concrete dam was dynamited away, and the Sandy River flowed freely from Mount Hood to the Columbia River for the first time in nearly a century.
Ever since, nature has come rushing back. Salmon have been spotted swimming upriver. The tender shoots of alder and cedar have begun to recover their turf. Meanwhile, kayakers like Mr. Kuthe make frequent trips downstream to see how the river is reclaiming its old bed — and to discover new whitewater rapids that may have formed.
“It looks so different, even from just a few months ago,” he said, as he eased his plastic kayak near a concrete wall that once anchored the dam.
A lot of rivers are starting to look different. In the 1950s and ’60s, a dam went up in the United States every six minutes to generate electricity, provide irrigation water and protect against floods, according to the United States Forest Service. As a result, there are an estimated 75,000 aging dams blocking rivers large and small today.
If that was the great dam-building era, we are now in the age of dam removal. Many dams have outlived their usefulness.
The Marmot, built in 1913, is a prime example. The dam’s owner, Portland General Electric, chose to replace it with cheaper power sources rather than pay for repairs and upgrades. Others are known as L.D.D.’s in the dam business, or “little dinky dams,” that few would miss.
There is also a growing consensus that dams are destructive to fish habitats and wildlife, and environmental groups have been lobbying aggressively for their removal.
“Many of these dams just don’t make much sense,” said Thomas O’Keefe, a spokesman for American Whitewater, a river stewardship group based in Cullowhee, N.C. “You have these dams that have huge ecological impact that don’t produce a lot of power.”
River by river, old dams are being dismantled at a rate of about 40 a year, according to American Rivers, a nonprofit conservancy in Washington that advocates for dam removal. While that’s good news for fish and wildlife, it’s also benefiting paddlers like Mr. Kuthe who are flocking to these uncorked rivers in search of newly formed whitewater rapids and other paddling adventures.
Many of these dams were erected decades before kayaking and rafting became mainstream sports. So when a dam is dismantled and the water recedes, mysteries are revealed. Will a Class V rapid emerge from a drained reservoir? Will a trickling ravine turn into a gushing torrent or an impassible waterfall? First descents can be claimed, new challenges charted and overcome.
“There’s also the excitement of the unknown,” said Tao Berman, a professional kayaker who lives in White Salmon, Wash., not far from the White Salmon River, which is known for its whitewater runs by kayakers the world over.
Mr. Berman has good reason to be excited these days. The Condit Dam, a 125-foot-high hydroelectric dam that has plugged the White Salmon River for 96 years, is expected to come out as early as next year. When that happens, a mile-long section behind the dam, which had been submerged under the artificial lake, will once again flow freely. There could be a series of gentle rapids or something more exciting, like a boat-flipping cataract.
“I just can’t wait to see it,” Mr. Berman, 30, said. “Is it going to unearth a great play spot, or is there going to be one really steep, difficult rapid? I have no idea.”
Large-scale dam removal is also being considered for the Klamath River, a 263-mile-long river that cuts through the mountains of northern California and southern Oregon and that is already a popular kayaking destination. Environmental and tribal groups are negotiating with PacifiCorp, a utility company, to decommission and remove four hydroelectric dams along the river.
But most dam removals are smaller affairs. In Virginia, the 22-foot-high Embrey Dam on the Rappahannock River was removed five years ago. The dam had outlived its usefulness, and now canoeists paddle through a half mile of rapids, just north of Fredericksburg, Va., and anglers cast for shad and herring in the unimpeded river. One of the new rapids is named Randy Never Saw It, a tribute to the late canoeing icon Randy Carter.
And 10 years ago, in one of the first victories for river advocates, the Edwards Dam was removed from the Kennebec River in Maine, freeing 17 miles of the river for the first time in more than 150 years. Over the years, the Kennebec River has become a popular stretch for canoeists and kayakers, with numerous outfitters and businesses sprouting along its banks.
The removal of Edwards Dam in Maine not only brought recreational and commercial life back to riverside communities, but it also helped galvanize a young environmental movement. Since then, more than 430 outdated dams have been removed nationwide, according to American Rivers.
Among the latest was the Marmot Dam. Its removal was actually paid for by Portland General Electric, which owned it, in part to restore native salmon runs.
Although the reclaimed stretch has revealed only a few small rapids — not enough to stir excitement among avid kayakers — that hasn’t stopped locals like Keith Jensen, who opened Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe, a shop in Portland, from exploring its newly exposed nooks.
On a crisp Sunday morning last November, Mr. Jensen, who knows the Sandy’s pools and drops as well as anyone, returned for the first time since the dam was removed. From a forested farmstead about six miles up the river, he put his red plastic boat into the swiftly moving river and paddled his way down to the site of the former dam.
A bald eagle flew overhead and landed on a fir perched over the river. Below, mergansers scampered along the water’s surface like graceful paddlers. Soon a road came into view where the dam used to be. Bits of spare pipe protruded from the gravel.
Mr. Jensen pulled his boat up on a fan of dry rocks and marveled at the changed river. “It’s a privilege to be out here,” he said.
RAPID TRANSIT PROJECTS
About 430 dams, large and small, have been removed nationwide since 1999, according to the group American Rivers, opening up opportunities for rafting and paddling. Here are a few noteworthy spots.
Salmon River, Sunbeam Dam, Idaho This 1910 dam in the mountains northeast of Boise was partly blasted away in the 1930s to improve fish passage, and the Sunbeam Run has been a Class III standard ever since (Idaho Tourism Division, www.visitidaho.org/whitewater).
Rappahannock River, Embrey Dam, Virginia The Embrey Dam near Fredricksburg, Va., was removed in 2004, creating a half mile of rapids on the Rappahannock River (Friends of the Rappahannock, 540-373-3448; www.riverfriends.org).
Rogue River, Savage Rapids Dam, Oregon Several dam removal projects are under way along a 157-mile segment of the Rogue River in southern Oregon. This summer, a portion of the 88-year-old Savage Rapids dam is being demolished (Southern Oregon Visitors Association; www.southernoregon.org).
Kennebec River, Edwards Dam, Maine The Edwards Dam on Maine’s Kennebec River was removed 10 years ago, which opened up 17 miles of the river to paddling and helped bring attention to river restoration (Maine Office of Tourism; www.visitmaine.com).
Tuckasegee River, Dillsboro Dam, North Carolina The Dillsboro Dam along North Carolina’s Tuckasegee River was approved for removal by the federal government in 2007. When it comes out, it will open up a Class II run and allow for a possible whitewater park (Dillsboro Merchants Association; www.visitdillsboro.org).
White Salmon River, Condit Dam, Washington The White Salmon River in southern Washington already has waterfalls and easy runs, and the planned removal of the Condit Dam next year is expected to expand this paddlers’ playground even further (Columbia River Gorge Visitors Association; www.crgva.org).
American Rivers (www.americanrivers.org) and American Whitewater (www.americanwhitewater.org) have details on dam removal and white water.