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Two US dams to be demolished

By Prabal Kr Das

GUWAHATI, Sept 3 � It is a rare instance of information not travelling far enough in a globalised world. At a time when the Union Government is unwavering in its intent to construct massive dams in North East India, two dams will be demolished in a country with which India shares ties in the environment sector.

This will be the biggest dismantling of dams in the history of the United States, an event that might set a precedent in a country that is witnessing a surge in environmental action in recent years.

The dams in the state of Washington in northwest United States will be �removed� mainly for environmental reasons and also in response to long standing appeals by a community of indigenous people. However, the development is not well known in this part of the world, with one Indian anti-dam activist saying, �We have no knowledge of such an event.� The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests might be aware, but would prefer to keep mum.

Invited by the US Department of State to study environmental protection and best practices, this correspondent was offered privileged access to the area where the dams have constrained the flow of river Elwha for close to a century.

Nearly 72 km in length, the Elwha emerges from the Olympic range and flows through the Olympic National Park creating scenic spots popular among tourists. The basin spreads a little over 800 sq km, where several tributaries help increase its discharge.

Its gradient and proximity to the city of Port Angles made it suitable for hydro electricity generation for entrepreneurs. In the early part of the last century the first dam started to produce electricity, which was augmented by erecting another dam. For several decades the dams generated cheap energy with the local Elwha community as the sole voice of dissent.

For the Elwha, the concrete structures went against their belief in the river as a sacred entity. Besides, the two dams had depleted fish stocks in the river for the people who already endured severe difficulties.

According to a Dr Jerry Freilich of the US National Park Service, the tide began to change with rising awareness about the environmental impact of dams on sensitive ecosystems, which had taken millions of years to evolve. He said, �Removal of the dams will restore the river to its natural state, allowing all five species of Pacific salmon and other anadromous fish to have a free run. Experts believe that Salmon populations alone will swell, from 3,000 to more than 300,000 once the dams disappeared, which would have a positive impact on the riverine ecosystems.

It has been said that the river�s restoration would be akin to creating a �living laboratory� that would reveal how free-flowing water and return of salmon change the present conditions. The altered water level coupled with the rise in fish stocks will undoubtedly benefit bears, eagles, and other animals which are part of the habitat.

However, the process of dismantling the dams will demand meticulous planning and execution. Under supervision of national park personnel, engineers and demolition crew will remove the structures in a step my step manner that will not release a sudden surge of water and sediment. The entire effort, involving more than USD 50 million, is expected to stretch over nearly three years.

The cost benefit analysis shows that the intervention will not just restore a natural environment but reinvigorate the ancient culture of the lower Elwha Klallam tribe. The tribe will see a river in a shape seen by their ancestors and will have access to sacred grounds, which are now under water.

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Two US dams to be demolished

GUWAHATI, Sept 3 � It is a rare instance of information not travelling far enough in a globalised world. At a time when the Union Government is unwavering in its intent to construct massive dams in North East India, two dams will be demolished in a country with which India shares ties in the environment sector.

This will be the biggest dismantling of dams in the history of the United States, an event that might set a precedent in a country that is witnessing a surge in environmental action in recent years.

The dams in the state of Washington in northwest United States will be �removed� mainly for environmental reasons and also in response to long standing appeals by a community of indigenous people. However, the development is not well known in this part of the world, with one Indian anti-dam activist saying, �We have no knowledge of such an event.� The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests might be aware, but would prefer to keep mum.

Invited by the US Department of State to study environmental protection and best practices, this correspondent was offered privileged access to the area where the dams have constrained the flow of river Elwha for close to a century.

Nearly 72 km in length, the Elwha emerges from the Olympic range and flows through the Olympic National Park creating scenic spots popular among tourists. The basin spreads a little over 800 sq km, where several tributaries help increase its discharge.

Its gradient and proximity to the city of Port Angles made it suitable for hydro electricity generation for entrepreneurs. In the early part of the last century the first dam started to produce electricity, which was augmented by erecting another dam. For several decades the dams generated cheap energy with the local Elwha community as the sole voice of dissent.

For the Elwha, the concrete structures went against their belief in the river as a sacred entity. Besides, the two dams had depleted fish stocks in the river for the people who already endured severe difficulties.

According to a Dr Jerry Freilich of the US National Park Service, the tide began to change with rising awareness about the environmental impact of dams on sensitive ecosystems, which had taken millions of years to evolve. He said, �Removal of the dams will restore the river to its natural state, allowing all five species of Pacific salmon and other anadromous fish to have a free run. Experts believe that Salmon populations alone will swell, from 3,000 to more than 300,000 once the dams disappeared, which would have a positive impact on the riverine ecosystems.

It has been said that the river�s restoration would be akin to creating a �living laboratory� that would reveal how free-flowing water and return of salmon change the present conditions. The altered water level coupled with the rise in fish stocks will undoubtedly benefit bears, eagles, and other animals which are part of the habitat.

However, the process of dismantling the dams will demand meticulous planning and execution. Under supervision of national park personnel, engineers and demolition crew will remove the structures in a step my step manner that will not release a sudden surge of water and sediment. The entire effort, involving more than USD 50 million, is expected to stretch over nearly three years.

The cost benefit analysis shows that the intervention will not just restore a natural environment but reinvigorate the ancient culture of the lower Elwha Klallam tribe. The tribe will see a river in a shape seen by their ancestors and will have access to sacred grounds, which are now under water.