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Past Time to Go: Other dams razed, why not deadly Dennett

Everywhere else in the country, it seems, they're tearing out dams. Big dams. Little dams. Medium-sized dams. Dams built more than a century ago that have long since outlived their purpose and usefulness. Dams that might still produce hydroelectric power but destroy fish populations.

About 800 have disappeared so far, with more ready to go.

In Washington state, they're getting ready to take out two dams at once on the Elwha River. One is 200 feet high, the other 105 feet high.

And on the Klamath River in Oregon and California, four dams will disappear in the largest removal project in history. They'll all be gone by 2020, according to an agreement reached last year.

Yet in Modesto, the tiny but deadly Dennett Dam remains — or at least the remains of the Dennett Dam remain in the Tuolumne River.

Modesto built the dam in 1933 to create a 97-acre swimming hole. But it washed out in 1935. The city rebuilt in 1937 and it washed out again three years later. The state condemned it in 1947, but never removed it.

Neither did the city, the Army Corps of Engineers, the California Department of Fish and Game or any other agency with authority over the river. The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife tends to get involved in dam removals when endangered species are involved. But the Dennett Dam never became a blip on its radar screen because the delta smelt doesn't come this far upriver.

And while the dam might hamper salmon runs, people are the endangered species in this case. Two boys and a man have drowned at the dam since 2006.

The city earmarked $300,000 for its removal after 13-year-old Jeremy Wilson drowned in 2007 — a year after 8-year-old Elmon Cooper died there. Last year, 56-year-old Leonard Goddard drowned at the dam.

But budget cuts, combined with higher than projected demolition costs, forced the city to delay the project. Now the budget situation is even worse.

Meanwhile, the city is among the numerous agencies named in lawsuits filed by a Bay Area attorney on behalf of Wilson's and Goddard's families.

Three years ago, city officials were trying to determine who owns the dam.

"The question still exists," said Jesse Roseman, Central Valley director of the Tuolumne River Preservation Trust. The trust doesn't care about ownership, though. It believes it has the power to remove the dam if it can find the money to do so.

"From the trust's perspective, we don't need to know the answer to take it out," Roseman said. "We're moving forward to take it out."

The trust has applied for five state and federal grants that would help pay to tear it out, and the nonprofit simply wants to remove the river's last barrier west of La Grange.

"We want it to be a free-flowing river from La Grange to the confluence of the San Joaquin River," Roseman said.

The city has written letters supporting the trust's grant applications. If it gets the grants, the trust can hire an engineer to design the restoration, someone to handle the environmental permits and finally, the demolition.

You'd think getting the environmental OK would be a no-brainer, because it seems that taking out a dangerous, hideous concrete and metal barrier that's a catch-all for stolen shopping carts and garbage would make the river safer and more aesthetically appealing.

That's never a gimme, though — certainly not with a multitude of government agencies involved and lawsuits pending.

Still, dams — much bigger ones at much greater restoration costs — are being dismantled in other places. Why is it taking so long here?

Dennett Dam needed to go a long time ago, and the cost of failing to get rid of it ultimately rises by the day.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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