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Breaching the Subject 

by Pia K. Hansen


Elizabeth Grossman's new book, Watershed, the Undamming of America, begins with a success story out of Maine. The Edwards Dam built across the Kennebec River at Augusta in 1837 became the first operating hydroelectric dam in the country to be removed. It happened in June 1999, and Grossman begins her tale about American dam breaching as she's driving back to Maine in the spring of 2000.


"I have come to the Kennebec River in hopes of witnessing fish history: To see the river's alewives -- a native species of river herring -- swim up a stretch of river to which they have not had access since the days when Henry David Thoreau wandered the woods of Maine," writes Grossman, whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Amicus Journal and many other publications.


It's the dream of returning fish that drives many to support the removal of dams across America's rivers. Grossman makes a pretty compelling argument in her book as she documents dam removals and the controversy surrounding them. On Monday she stops by Auntie's to read and talk about the destiny of the dams.


Americans, she writes, have a peculiar relationship to their rivers, which they have both used and abused. That statement rings a bell with local environmentalist Kell McAboy, who is Save Our Wild Salmon's local representative.


"The mighty Columbia River is a perfect example of a used and abused river," she says. "The river is grand enough to support all the things our modern society demands: water for irrigation, energy, fishing, transportation, recreation. But we have pushed the river too far. There are more than 200 dams in the Columbia Basin, making it the most constipated watershed on earth."


In Maine, after the dam's removal, the alewives had indeed returned, but the fish still hit other dams upstream, effectively illustrating how clearing one dam doesn't save an entire ecosystem. But the beauty of Grossman's book is that she manages to interweave countless interviews with local grassroots activists, legislators and just plain ordinary people into her story, so that it reads almost like a novel instead of the painstakingly documented scientific research project it is.


And it's not all happy boys fishing from the newly restored riverbank. In Montana, writes Grossman, the Milltown Dam at the confluence of the Clark Fork and the Blackfoot Rivers holds back the 180-acre Milltown reservoir, which has served as a receptacle for toxic waste from the Butte and Anaconda mines for nearly a century.


It was declared a Superfund site in 1983.


"Current estimates say the sediment holds some 2,000 tons of arsenic, 13,000 tons of copper, nearly 15,000 tons of iron, over 9,000 ton of manganese and 19,000 tons of zinc," writes Grossman. "Classified by the EPA as persistent toxic metals, all of these substances are known to have serious adverse affects on human and aquatic health. There is now so much sediment in the reservoir that it is nearly full."


What to do? Removing the dam without cleaning up the reservoir would likely have catastrophic consequences for local communities, fish and waterways -- including Lake Pend Oreille -- downstream. Toxins are already seeping into the groundwater around the reservoir, making local wells unsafe. Imagine what would happen if the dam was taken out and the heavy metals allowed to travel freely. While not as rosy as the story out of Maine, even this one has a somewhat happy ending: Now the mining company has put forth a cleanup plan, and the community is -- somewhat reluctantly -- getting behind it.


McAboy hopes Grossman's book will help gain more support for the removal of the lower Snake River dams, which has been opposed by most politicians of both parties and doesn't register high on the public's to-do list. McAboy sees visits from people like Grossman as one more step in educating people.


As McAboy says, "When thinking about removing the four dams in the lower Snake River, not only is it the best bet for the salmon, it's the best bet for people."

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