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Dams in the Wilderness

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Dams in the Wilderness

Postby adam921 » Thu Sep 27, 2012 1:02 pm

It seems like it's been a while since there's been a thread on the topic...
So how do YOU feel about existing dams within the wilderness?
I just recently learned about the dams (that are no longer being maintained) in Emigrant, and was recently in Desolation and found quite a few dams that were not mapped anywhere that I could find (no, not Aloha).
Personally, this really bothers me. But what's the solution?



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Re: Dams in the Wilderness

Postby Wandering Daisy » Thu Sep 27, 2012 1:15 pm

What exactly "bothers" you? That the dams are not maintained or that they are being let to revert to nature without being physcially taken down?

I have no problems with small dams in the wilderness. In fact, as a water resource engineer, I think small upper watershead dams are actually a good thing and personally would like to see them maintained. In a lot of areas, a dry year like this year, the dams provide a small lake as a water source for animals. The lakes also provide fish habitat. Why would you say it is OK to maintain a trail as a recreational feature in the wilderness, but not maintain a dam which provides the recreation (fishing)? I would even say that some of the dams in Emigrant Wilderness are actually historical - may meet National Historical site requirements.

In the big picture, the dams in the Sierra are really minor. I am sure if you or some organization were to pay for their removal, the FS may find that OK too. The FS just does not have the budget to physically remove all those little dams. By the way, you cannot just go in and remove the dam. You have to do an EIS study to determine if removing the dam would impact endangered species. The cost, therefore, is not insignificant.
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Re: Dams in the Wilderness

Postby adam921 » Thu Sep 27, 2012 1:27 pm

I'm bothered by the fact that the dams are left in place despite having historical value (which most of them I'm sure do not). I understand that the FS doesn't have the budget for things like this; this is all hypothetical.
The difference between maintaining a trail and a dam is that while a trail is built for human use to pass through, the dams (at least ones of this size) are meant essentially solely to retain the non-native trout.
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Re: Dams in the Wilderness

Postby RoguePhotonic » Thu Sep 27, 2012 2:09 pm

They only bother me when they have destroyed a beautiful place like Hetch Hetchy. Other wise my only concern is the idea of leaving them to return to nature. Isn't it dangerous to just let a damn collapse on it's own? One day a wall of water is going to be rushing down those creeks when the damn just couldn't hold up anymore.
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Re: Dams in the Wilderness

Postby Wandering Daisy » Thu Sep 27, 2012 4:22 pm

Dams that are large enough to cause damage if breached are inspected by dam safety department and if determined to be unsafe, have to be fixed or taken down. The dams in the high Sierra are very small and structurally of the type that slowly leak and deteriorate. If you see a dam in the wilderness that could cause downstream damage if broken, call state dam safety and tell them about it.

There is no reason native fish cannot be planted in lakes created by old dams. It is not a given that fish in a lake due to an old dam are all non-native fish.

At any rate, I think that environmentalists have a lot of higher priority items to worry about. Many people walk by a "lake" and do not even realize it is held by a small dam.

I would be concerned about a lake held by a dam in an old mining area that has been used as part of the mining process - settling pond, etc. These can be highly toxic. There are a few in Emigrant that may fall into this catagory.

I am more inclined to think that structures that exist in an area when is declared a wilderness, should remain. If there are so many structures that they destroy the concept of wilderness, perhaps the area should not have been declared a wilderness in the first place.
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Re: Dams in the Wilderness

Postby DriveFly44 » Thu Sep 27, 2012 5:48 pm

I hope my pal venturefar chimes in on this one. I know he's very passionate about it and extremely knowledgeable.

Ladd
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Re: Dams in the Wilderness

Postby dave54 » Thu Sep 27, 2012 7:05 pm

The same philosophical question has been raised elsewhere about old mines, cabins, roads and bridges, even plane wreckages.

The problem is wilderness areas are by law to be free of human caused disturbance. Ecosystems adapt. Not only the lake species themselves, but upstream and downstream systems adapted to the presence of the lake, and the microclimate of the lake basin and surrounding terrestial ecosystem is affected by the presence of the lake. So removing the dam and altering the lake is itself a human disturbance and may be a violation of the Wilderness Act.

We do not remove trails that involved blasting rock faces or building retaining walls. Several recent wilderness designations have patches of asphalt on old roads yet there is no effort to remove. We cannot eliminate all traces of any human disturbance. At some point we should just let them be and move forward than trying to replicate an artificial past.
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Re: Dams in the Wilderness

Postby venturefar » Fri Sep 28, 2012 4:27 pm

The specific history of the dams within what is now the Emigrant Wilderness began with a man named Fred Leighton. In 1897 Leighton was part of a cattle drive when he noticed how substantial numbers of trout died off due to the streams drying up in late summer and early fall (Bowman 6). Leighton and a business partner obtained a permit from the forest service to build a cabin at Yellowhammer Lake to serve as a basecamp to construct and maintain a series of check dams made from natural rock and sod. The purpose of theses dams was to raise the water level on an impounded lake and then to gradually release water to prevent downstream tributaries from drying up during the late summer and early fall ensuring the survivability and natural reproduction of trout stocked in these waters (Bowman 7). Based on the first dams success at enhancing the area’s fishery eventually 18 dams were constructed between 1920 and 1951 (United States. Dept. of Agriculture 166-167). As a result, today the Emigrant Wilderness is home to what guide book author Ben Schifrin describes as “legendary trout fishing” (Schifrin 1).

Even though Leighton’s contribution to the idea of self-sustaining recreational fisheries is undeniable it’s possible he had other motives as well. It is important to examine the economic context in which the dams within the Emigrant wilderness were built. Considering that the construction of the dams took place before, during, and after the depression (as much as I’d like to) I am not totally buying the idea that Leighton invested incredible amounts of time and resources just to create fishing Valhalla. Leighton first began working as a cowhand in the Emigrant in 1897. Beginning in the 1870’s competition for rangeland and water in the San Joaquin Valley forced many ranchers into the Sierra to make their living. (United States. Dept. of Agriculture 165). Perhaps Leighton realized the benefits of ranching in the Sierra and saw how he could make his rangeland more profitable and efficient by constructing the dams with the enhancement of the fishery being an added bonus that provided recreational opportunities as well as supplemented the cattlemen’s menu. From a ranching perspective the dams serve two purposes. First the dams constructed in meadows raise the water table in the immediate vicinity enhancing the foraging capacity in the adjacent meadows. Second, the dams constructed at the various lakes impound water and allowed it to be released gradually providing a dependable water source for the ranchers and their cattle in fall when they would be driving their cattle to market in addition to decreasing fish mortality during dry years (Bowman 2).

I believe that the contemporary framing of the issue as the man made dams destroying the scenic beauty of the wilderness is a ploy used by certain interests to take a cheap at fish and or fishing. If those interests were truly interested in protecting the Emigrant Wilderness they would be better served having sportsmen as an ally rather than an adversary. If enforcing the Wilderness Act’s prohibition on man-made structures and their destruction of scenic beauty is truly the goal then surely there are more important battles to fight. Certainly both sides can agree that dams are not the only ranching legacy that mars the Sierra landscape. The barbed wire fences and gates that are still used to corral cattle are far more unsightly than any dam. How can the dams not be maintained while the fences are repaired year after year? What’s with the arbitrary application of the Wilderness Act?
Bowman, Steve D. Leighton’s High Sierra Check Dam Legacy. Xlibris, 2006. Print.
Schifrin, Ben. Emigrant Wilderness. Berkeley: Wilderness press, 2004. Print.
United States. Dept. of Agriculture. United States Forest Service. Draft Environmental Impact Statement Emigrant Wilderness Dams. Washington. GPO, 2003. Print.
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allowed to be repaired year after year...
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Re: Dams in the Wilderness

Postby rlown » Fri Sep 28, 2012 6:14 pm

Having seen the dams at Rutherford and Lillian Lks this July in Ansel Adams Wilderness, I can say they've been patched but the water levels were lower than the dam pretty much because they leak and the gate mechanisms are rusted in place.

Also they were designed with outward curves as opposed to inward curves. They're masonry structures so during a heavy iceload, they would just crack. Rutherford showed signs of patching, but Lillian was overgrown and the tree catcher cables were inoperable.

Personally, I don't care if they are there or not. They didn't appear to be doing anything important in Ansel Adams wilderness this year with the low snow/water levels.
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Re: Dams in the Wilderness

Postby BillyBobBurro » Fri Sep 28, 2012 6:36 pm

If there was a proposal afoot to build more damns in a wilderness area I would not support such an idea. Relative to existing damns that where made years ago I vote to leave them be and maintain some of them, maybe even most of them.

There is a certain idyllic notion of what a wilderness area is (outside of the legal definition . The areas of the high Sierras that we have protected as wildernesses have basically had people living in them since the glaciers retreated. These people intentionally altered the environment (hunting and intentional fires) for so long that they actually became part of the ecosystem. Should we remove the damns and return to a state of people living off of the land almost year round? This is what was normal for this "wilderness" for thousands of years. Or should we try to replicate the "Wilderness" of the high Sierras before man touched foot to this continent?

In the interest of full disclosure I do fish up in Emigrant and other Wilderness areas.

-Bill
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Re: Dams in the Wilderness

Postby rlown » Fri Sep 28, 2012 6:41 pm

BillyBobBurro wrote:There is a certain idyllic notion of what a wilderness area is (outside of the legal definition . The areas of the high Sierras that we have protected as wildernesses have basically had people living in them since the glaciers retreated. These people intentionally altered the environment (hunting and intentional fires) for so long that they actually became part of the ecosystem. Should we remove the damns and return to a state of people living off of the land almost year round? This is what was normal for this "wilderness" for thousands of years. Or should we try to replicate the "Wilderness" of the high Sierras before man touched foot to this continent?


Could say the same about high sierra fish stocking.. but let's not go there..

Normal is a strong word. I prefer to use Current. and current means constant change.
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Re: Dams in the Wilderness

Postby SSSdave » Wed Oct 10, 2012 1:33 pm

Sierra has a lot of small dams across outlets of natural lakes that I'd prefer to have not to have been built though quite understand the reasons given farmers, ranchers, and fishermen downstream. Not a big deal either way as my reasons are for minor reasons of aesthetics and shore ecology. In any case better to leave what was built decades ago as is instead of upsetting was has since somewhat naturalized.

On Labor Day weekend I backpacked into 20 Lakes Basin past Saddlebag Lake. With the droughty year it was the first time I'd ever seen the water so low that there was a stream maybe a hundred yards long between the inside face of the concrete dam and what was the original area of the natural lake before the dam enlarged it. Still a rather sizeable lake though the natural shore showed just waterlines on barren rock. A couple centuries ago the shore probably had a modest number of trees that were all logged for firewood by time the dam was built.

Recall seeing lakes with short height outlet dams in Emigrant Basin where there were areas along shores with old dead trees drowned when the dams were originally filled. Rather ugly and should have been removed.
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