Drought, growth have Western states studying dams again

Posted: Monday, March 03, 2008

SPOKANE, Wash. - The era of massive dam construction in the West - which tamed rivers, swallowed towns, and created irrigated agriculture, cheap hydropower and persistent environmental problems - effectively ended in 1966 with the completion of Glen Canyon Dam.

But a booming population and growing fears about climate change have governments once again studying dams, this time to create huge reservoirs to capture more winter rain and spring snowmelt for use in dry summer months.

New dams are being studied in Washington state, California, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, Nevada and other states, even as dams are being torn down across the country over environmental concerns - worries that will likely pose big obstacles to new dams.

"The West and the Northwest are increasing in population growth like never before," said John Redding, regional spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Boise. "How do you quench the thirst of the hungry masses?"

There are lots of ideas for increasing water supplies in the West. They include conservation, storage of water in natural underground aquifers, pipelines to carry water from the mountains, desalination plants to make drinking water from the ocean, and small dams to serve local areas.

Most of those ideas are much more popular than big new dams.

In Washington state, Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire put together a coalition of business, government and environmental groups to create the Columbia River Management Plan, which calls for spending $200 million to study various proposals to find more water for arid eastern Washington.

Jay Manning, director of the Washington state Department of Ecology, believes that massive new dams on the main stems of rivers are unlikely. But it is quite possible that tributaries will be dammed, and reservoirs pumped full of river water.

"It is inevitable we will take steps to increase water supply," Manning said. "Storage is part of that solution."

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