25 January 2009

Weekend Discussion: River Restoration

NOTE: This post will stay here until Sunday night. Posts for Saturday and Sunday morning go below this post.

Dear Aguanauts,

Discussion posts allow you to discuss your beliefs on a topic -- to share your understanding, experience and opinions -- without worrying about what's right or what others think. (Check out last week's discussion on globalization, food trade and water supply.) Most important, the discussion allows us to learn from each other. So...

Should rivers be restored at a cost to hydropower and agricultural interests?


  1. David,

    Great topic and timely too with the approaching passage of the "pure pork" Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (S.22) that will authorize the start of the San Joaquin River Restoration. I am not against the restoration, but an underfunded project is an underfunded project. NRDC position is that it will cost $250 million for total restoration, while 3rd party assessments by CH2M Hill put the figure in the $1 billion range. A well conceived and funded project may be worthwhile, but flushing a bunch of needed water down a river with no good habitat is a waste (especially in light of our current water situation). With other rivers showing a much greater return of fish per dollar spent (this is NOAA's determination, not mine), it would seem that this project is not such a great idea. Time will tell.

  2. I know little about the San Joaquin project, but there are a couple of thoughts that leap to my mind generally. First, many dams/diversions have outlived their useful/safe life, or else no long serve their purpose (the mill they impounded water for has closed, e.g.) but are "too expensive" for owners to remove. Second, dams have a cost, too, and that ought to be figured into any restoration equation. They can cost lost water (evaporation), lost riverine life, sedimentation, and increased aquatic/riparian invasive species. Dams have their purpose -- but they are not free.

    Great topic, BTW.

    Dan in Oregon

  3. No, not if it can be done without a cost to hydropower or ag. But seriously folks….

    Restoring rivers is good in principal, by why consider only hydropower and ag? Why not the water use of people in big cities? Why not the flood control projects along the Mississippi?

    There was a recent post stating: “People who live in a desert should live a desert lifestyle within the constraints of the desert water supply.” Why only those in the desert? Why only water? Should those in the desert be allowed air conditioning? Should people who want to live in the upper Plains be required to live within the constraints of sub-zero winters without central heat?

    Does less hydropower mean more coal? More wind (?), which will require massive building including new transmission lines. More nukes? Or less electricity per person? My point is that all of man’s activities affect and alter the environment and, although minimizing (or reversing) the impacts is a good idea, picking winners and losers is often a matter of personal preference.

  4. Just because something has "environmental" in its purpose does not mean it should be immune from cost/benefit analysis. Heck, the Golden Gate Bridge has caused thousands of deaths (can't say that about Westlands!) and has been a major contributor to urban sprawl in Marin County. Knock 'er down! Removing some of the damns on the Klamath and Snake probably makes a great deal of sense. Removing Shasta, Hetch-Hetchy, or the levees on the Mississippi probably does not.
    I suspect the restoration project on the San Joaquin falls into the second category, and that it will turn out to be an Iraq for the environmentalists: a costly, pointless boondoggle that in the end satisfies nobody. $250 million spent on the Upper Sac and Trinity would provide demonstrable improvement to threatened fisheries. The San Joaquin project is a total gamble, and will cost a heck of a lot more than that.

  5. Matt Kondolf, river and stream restoration expert here at UC Berkeley, is one of the leading proponents and critics of what has been happening in the central valley in CA, as well as other areas. Most restoration projects have no post project appraisals (he is trying to change that) and many operate on stretches of rivers without considering the effect on upstream or downstream habitat. For example, in our class, we visited the Tuolumne RIver to canoe and watch salmon spawning, but also to look at a restoration project. Essentially, the project put lots of spawning material in the river (dumped gravel) and attempted to alter the grade to increase the gradient. Increasing the gradient in that stretch, however, necessarily lessens it above the project site.

    You'll also get projects like what happened in the Lower Codornices watershed. Project folk installed a perfectly meandering stream channel here, but as Matt said, most creeks in this area don't quite look like that, and expected it to wash out. So besides improving functionality, often its the landscape architect firms that carry out this work, and they have aesthetics as well as functionality in mind.

    SO all in all, California has spent close to a billion I think on stream restoration projects in the Central Valley over the past 15 years, and the positive effect, if any, is unknown because of the lack of post project monitoring. Likely, the main beneficiary are consultants developing these projects and reports.

  6. Start talking dam removal up here and the threats fly. Just discussing removing four lower Snake river dams that are silted up and don't generate enough to make any difference is causing family feuds and three a.m. death threats. Instead they discuss adding more dams to tributaries of the Columbia for added water storage, flooding the Hanford Reach, Hawk Creek Canyon, and Crab Creek. Of course feasibility studies reveal this won't solve any future shortages given the up front costs. It would be more economically sound to CONSERVE the water we HAVE!! Of course that little bit of information will be swept quickly under the rug so as to grab as much pork as possible and to hell with our last wildlife refuges and free running reaches.

  7. FourMound, part of the problem with the Snake River dam removal controversy is that it is being sold to the locals as a flat loss to them, with no offsetting benefit. Combine that with people's normal resistance to change, and you get 3 AM death threats.
    I think there would have to be some pretty decent monetary compensation to the present users of cheap hydro power, and to the farmers who have had access to cheap irrigation water and bulk marine transportation. The good thing is, it is a pretty small number of people, so the costs would not really be very high. Cheap hydro power from the Bonneville system has been the only thing making life in many of the small communities it serves possible. Of course, the big Bonneville dam (the one Woody Guthrie extolled) and several others would remain under all but the most radical proposals, but there'd be some loss from losing the littler ones.

  8. Yes, some rivers should be restored - is the short answer.

    Has the question been asked differently, perhaps the answer would have been more obvious - why not ask "Shall we divert every drop on every river to ensure plentiful supplies for our cities and farms?" To that question, most people would respond with an emphatic "no!".

    The question is one of balance and cost/benefit analysis, though measuring environmental and other aesthetic benefits is a tricky thing.


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