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Living Rivers Currents
March 10, 2002

Undamming National Parks

Yosemite activists alert Hetch Hetchy visitors to the need for restoration
Yosemite activists alert Hetch Hetchy visitors to the need for restoration
Vol. 2, No. 3, March 2002

A primary motive for decommissioning several dams on the Colorado River system is to restore habitat in some of the country's national parks and monuments. While concentrating on just a few of these dams, LIVING RIVERS has learned that there are a total of 742 dams affecting our parks, 482 inside Park Service boundaries and another 260 outside.

I'm not sure the public is fully aware of the number of dams in what are supposed to be protected natural areas," says LIVING RIVERS conservation director, John Weisheit. "The idea of dams is wholly inconsistent with the legislation which created our parks."

Few people see these dams, many of which are located away from the parking lots and paved roads. They are for the most part small and quite old, originally built for water supply or flood management purposes. which are no longer critical. Many pose safety risks or are otherwise in disrepair. However, their removal could significantly improve the parks' natural integrity.

With the growing nationwide awareness of opportunities for river restoration through dam decommissioning, itís somewhat surprising that with the exception of a few high profile campaigns, many of these small dams that are ripe for removal have yet to be targeted. "We probably have 150 dams in the park system that we could take out right now, but there is no money available to remove them," says Charles Karpowicz with the National Park Service Maintenance and Operations Safety of Dams Program. The program does remove about four to five dams a year for safety reasons.

Even those dams that are arguably providing benefits, such as the sixty or so generating hydroelectricity, could be decommissioned as their output is relatively negligible. Such is the case on the Elwha River in Olympia National Park. Friends of the Earth is nearing the end of an 18-year effort to remove two dams. They've succeeded in getting the Park Service to purchase the dams for $30 million, and within three years expect to see endangered salmon again thriving in natural habitat conditions.

"This is how our parks should be," says Shawn Cantrell who has spearheaded Friends of the Earth's Elwha campaign. "We should be eliminating dams like these that do not make sense." Cantrell would like to see the Park Service establish an objective of removing 25 percent of its dams within the next four to five years.

Greg Adair of Friends of Yosemite Valley agrees. "In 1923, the public suffered a major loss with the submergence of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park, but this damage is not permanent and must be corrected," says Adair. Yosemite's O'Shaughnessy Dam is the most politically challenging facility to remove from the national park system. It is the largest, and like the dams on the Elwha, it is not owned by the Park Service. San Francisco operates it for water storage and generating $30 million of hydropower revenue annually. "But this is public land, what John Muir described as "More beautiful than Yosemite itself," and the public and the ecosystem deserves to have it back," adds Adair. Adair points out that San Francisco can store its water in neighboring reservoirs, and the power revenues represents a federal subsidy from the Park Service to San Francisco.

"Whether restoring Hetch Hetchy or a tributary stream on the Yellowstone, dams aren't needed and certainly don't belong in our National Parks. It's time we organized to bring this about," concludes Weisheit.

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Last Update: October 30, 2007

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