Elwha Dams Won't Be Coming Down Anytime Soon

OPPOSITION is growing to the planned removal of two dams on the Olympic Peninsula. But the biggest snag to the deal might come when the federal government is asked to pay for it all. ------------------------------

PORT ANGELES - The fate of two aging dams on the Elwha River was all but decided 19 months ago.

Or was it?

An ambitious, unprecedented plan to tear the dams down - promoted by environmentalists, accepted by the dams' owners, adopted by Congress, embraced by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt - has hit some snags.

Don't expect Elwha and Glines Canyon dams to crumble anytime soon.

When Congress passed a bill in 1992 authorizing the Interior Department to buy and remove the dams, it imposed just one requirement: The agency must conclude, after a study of the Elwha River, that demolition is the only way to fully restore the river's ecosystem and salmon runs.

A report scheduled for delivery to Congress later this month reaches that conclusion.

But federal money to buy and demolish the dams - perhaps $200 million or more - won't come easily. Details surrounding removal, restoration and the consequences will take at least 18 months to work out. And, although dam removal may enjoy considerable regional support, opposition on the Olympic Peninsula has intensified. The prospect of a lawsuit looms, one that may employ environmental laws in a bid to foil an environmentalist cause celebre.

"This is an environmental disaster and an economic disaster all wrapped into one," says Marvin Chastain, secretary-treasurer and guiding force behind Rescue Elwha Area Lakes (REAL), an opposition group that formed last year.

Brian Winter, leader of a federal interagency team studying dam removal, says REAL probably represents the majority view on the Olympic Peninsula.

"There's a lot of false information out there," Winter says. "We've done a poor job of getting the word out."

REAL argues demolition will harm the trumpeter swan, the world's largest waterfowl. It has raised questions about the impact on fish, recreation, flooding, water quality, ground-water supply and the survival of Daishowa America, a Port Angeles pulp and paper mill that is the sole consumer of the power the dams produce.

Winter and other dam-removal backers say much of the group's information is overstated, unsubstantiated or just plain wrong.

They say the real environmental disaster occurred 83 years ago, when Elwha Dam blocked spawning salmon and steelhead from 70 miles of the river and its tributaries.

Both Elwha, just five miles from the sea, and Glines Canyon, constructed upstream in 1926 in what would later become Olympic National Park, were built without fish ladders.

Demolishing dams for environmental reasons is unprecedented. Backers say it would undo eight decades of damage, provide an opportunity to reintroduce salmon to habitat - mostly in the park - that is among the best on the peninsula.

But REAL has flourished in part because it has tapped widespread, long-standing peninsula suspicion of environmentalists and the federal government. "They want to take over the whole peninsula and turn it into their version of Jurassic Park," says Chastain, a retired corporate recruiter who moved here from Mercer Island in 1989.

The biggest threat to the dam-removal plan may come not from REAL, but from Clinton-administration budget writers. The Interior Department is still studying demolition; it hasn't yet asked for money to do it.

When that time comes, the decision will be made by the Office of Management and Budget, not by Babbitt. Faced with tight caps on domestic spending, OMB requested less money from Congress for Interior in 1995 than it got this year.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, who represents the Olympic Peninsula, is the second-ranking member of the subcommittee that writes the Interior Department budget. Even his clout may not be enough, a spokesman cautions.

"Norm has been very cautious selling advance tickets on this one," says his spokesman, George Behan.

Environmentalists, agencies and the dams' owners began warring over new licenses for the projects a decade ago. They produce 19 megawatts a year, about 38 percent of the Daishowa mill's power needs.

The 1992 law seemed to settle the long-running dispute. It set the purchase price at $29.5 million and allowed Daishowa to buy replacement power from the federal Bonneville Power Administration for about 40 percent more than it paid for electricity from the dams.

If dam removal stalls or is blocked, parties to the settlement say, it will mean a return to interminable administrative and legal wrangling over new licenses.

"It would bring virtual chaos to what is now, in our view, an orderly process," says Orville Campbell, hydropower manager for James River Paper, the dams' owner.

REAL's chief publicity tool opposing removal of the dams is a video that opens with scenes of trumpeter swans swimming on Lake Aldwell, the reservoir behind Elwha Dam.

The birds have become REAL's icons. About 60 winter on the lake; if the dams are demolished, the reservoir will disappear and the birds will be displaced.

"If people in Seattle, especially the ones who send their money to environmental groups, learn that removing the dams will destroy this habitat, they'll be up in arms," Chastain says.

The trumpeter-swan population of the lower 48 states dwindled to fewer than 100 earlier in the century, but the birds have made a comeback. They aren't listed as an endangered or threatened species.

Martha Jordan, a Snohomish wildlife biologist who is a director of the international Trumpeter Swan Society, says about 2,000 winter in Western Washington.

Lake Aldwell, low, quiet and secluded, provides the bird's best habitat on the Olympic Peninsula, Jordan says: "The loss of Lake Aldwell doesn't make me particularly happy."

But she says REAL has misrepresented the Trumpeter Swan Society's position on dam removal. The society doesn't oppose it. Nor does the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

On the whole, Jordan says, wildlife would benefit from the dams' demolition. The overall Western Washington swan population probably wouldn't suffer. And the society plans to work with the Interior Department to mitigate the habitat lost at Lake Aldwell, perhaps by providing new winter homes for swans elsewhere on the peninsula.

Mitigation for swans, and a host of other issues raised by REAL, will be explored in an environmental-impact statement just getting under way, Winter says. The work won't be finished for at least 18 months, but Winter doesn't see a show-stopper among the group's concerns.

When the environmental-impact statement is completed, Chastain says, opponents almost certainly will sue, citing, among other statutes, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.

"We're going to use all their laws," he says. "I consider myself an environmentalist. We want to see the Olympic Peninsula stay like it is. . . .

"The dams were a change for the good, despite what they did to the salmon. We've got lots of rivers. We don't have that many lakes."

REAL has received encouragement from Tacoma City Light, itself embroiled in dam-relicensing fights. The utility bought 50 copies of REAL's video to distribute to others in the industry.

Tacoma City Light Superintendent Steve Klein downplays the notion that demolition of the dams may set a precedent. Chastain doesn't.

"I think they recognize this is just the trial balloon up here," he says.