Babbitt tells ecologists dams must be broken Interior secretary says more than 30 are targeted in Chesapeake Bay region

August 05, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

For the sake of the nation's rivers and fish, Americans need to realize that the age of dam-building is over and trade in their steam shovels for sledgehammers, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt told a gathering of environmental scientists in Baltimore yesterday.

That process is already under way in the Chesapeake Bay region, where more than 2,500 dams and other river blockages prevent seven varieties of migratory fish from reaching their upstream spawning grounds in the region's rivers.

Under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program, more than 30 dams are slated to be demolished or altered to allow fish like shad, herring, alewife, striped bass and perch to reach their traditional spawning sites.

About 272 miles of rivers and streams have been reopened to fish since 1993, according to bay program statistics, and bay restoration efforts call for a total of 1,356 miles to be reopened to migratory fish by 2003.

Over the past two centuries, Americans "got carried away," building more than 75,000 dams -- many of them unnecessary and motivated by political pork, Babbitt said in a speech at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America.

"There's something about a dam that is magnetic and irresistible to a politician," he said. "Politicians and dams go together. But I have been touring the country with a sledgehammer to see if I can help create a new culture in which politicians and the destruction of dams go together."

Babbitt is scheduled to strike a symbolic first blow in November when engineers begin cutting a deep notch in the 1,500-foot-long Little Falls Dam on the Potomac to open a passage for American shad, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Peter Bergstrom.

The bony fish, a traditional Chesapeake Bay delicacy, were once so abundant that George Washington relied on his shad catch at Mount Vernon to carry the plantation through lean years. But dams built for water storage, hydroelectric power and other purposes have so badly damaged the population that the bay's commercial catch fell from more than 40 million pounds in the 1890s to just over 1 million in the 1980s.

The $1.5 million "notch" and fish ladder at Little Falls Dam between Montgomery County and Virginia "will open up a 10-mile stretch of scenic river gorge to recreational fishing," said Bergstrom. But a second dam farther upriver at Great Falls, which provides the District of Columbia with its water supply, will prevent shad from reaching the upper 150 miles of the Potomac, he said.

Three of four dams on the Patapsco River have fish passageways, and state officials hope to open a 44-mile stretch to migratory fish, said Kate Naughten of the bay program.

Local officials are behind many of the efforts to remove or modify dams whose economic benefits are marginal, Babbitt said. But the future seems secure for some of the great Western dams most despised by environmentalists, because they provide water or electric power that can't easily be replaced.

Babbit refused to say whether he supports a recent Sierra Club initiative to demolish the controversial Hetch Hetchy dam, which submerged the Colorado River's scenic Glen Canyon in order to water Western farms and cities, and created Lake Powell in the deserts of northern Arizona.

"There are thousands of marginal dams where we can reach a consensus for removal," Babbitt said. "We have a long way to go before we jump into any big economic consequences."

Pub Date: 8/05/98

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