“Dams just don’t blend in as part of the landscape for me anymore” -Ben Knight, co-director of the film DamNation.
A huge environmental issue that has recently come to my attention is dams. Yep, you heard me right.
“But wait India! Dams are good! They make power and electricity and stuff!” Yes reader, that’s what I thought too. But like most things in this world, dams aren’t all that they’re advertised to be.
There are 84,000 dams over three feet high in the United States. That’s a lot of dams. You could even read a comprehensive list of them if you wanted to.
America has furiously built more and more dams in an attempt to keep up with the nation’s insatiable hunger for hydroelectric power. However, crucial safety measures were often overlooked in the rush of development.
Dam failures are disasterous to the surrounding areas. Johnstown Pennsylvania (pictured above) was leveled with 20 million tons of water, resulting in the deaths of 2,209 people, the loss of 1600 homes, and over $17,000,000 in property damage when the South Fork Dam failed. The second most deadly flood in United States history occurred when the Canyon Lake Dam failed, resulting in 238 deaths and 3,057 injuries. When the earthen Teton Dam failed (pictured below) it sent a 15 foot wall of water hurtling towards Rexburg, Idaho. 11 people lost their lives, but with over 100,000 people in the flood path it could have been a lot worse.
As devastating as dam failures are to cities and the people who live in them, that’s not what I want to focus on. The impact of dams on the environment is just as bad.
Environmental Impact of Dams
Rivers that are dammed up and domesticated are radically different than wild rivers. The entire ecosystem of an area changes when a free-flowing body of water is stopped and transformed into a slack-water reservoir. Algae blooms are common on dammed rivers due to the lack of movement and changes to the temperature, chemical composition, and oxygen levels of the water. Dams also prevent natural sediments from moving downstream and replenishing the surrounding areas. The extreme buildup of sediments on one side of a dam contrasted with a lack of sediments on the other side, coupled with the aforementioned changes to the river itself, degrade the quality of the water.
Dams are also detrimental to populations of fish, salmon in particular. The life cycle of salmon is incredibly unique. Salmon are born in freshwater and travel to the ocean later in their lives, typically to find feeding grounds. After years at sea the fish return to their birthplace in order to create tiny silver offspring. Dams pose a threat to salmon by preventing adult fish from returning home and completing their life cycle.
Most dams are required to provide passage for migrating fish in the form of fish ladders or elevators, but they are often difficult to find, access, and navigate. Ironically enough, it isn’t uncommon to see barges transporting fish upstream due to their inability to cross naturally.
Places that used to be home to hundreds of thousands of wild salmon are now lucky to have more than 100 in the river at a time. Fish hatcheries were created to be the solution to this problem, but are proven to do more harm than good. In theory fish hatcheries can stabilize fish populations, but only if they produce fish that can survive in the wild. Fish that are born within the confines of a hatchery have no “real world experience” regarding feeding habits and predator avoidance, which makes them poorly equipped to live in the wild. As a result, the native fish populations suffer. You can read more about it here.
While dams pose a huge threat to rivers and to salmon, by far the most tragic consequence of hydropower is what it takes away. Damming a river requires one side to be flooded and lost. Some of the most beautiful places are buried in a watery grave, never to be enjoyed again. Two of the most monumental casualties to dams are Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park and Glen Canyon in Arizona.
The once beautiful valley in Yosemite (pictured left) was drowned and turned into a reservoir for the O’Shaughnessy Dam. Hetch Hetchy Valley is evidence that not even National Parks are safe from dams.
Glen Canyon in Arizona (pictured right) was killed so that it could be reborn as Lake Powell. The canyon was once home to winding slot canyons, deep gorges, and towering spires, as well as cultural artifacts and ruins from Ancestral Puebloans. Not only did the Glen Canyon dam and the subsequent creation of Lake Powell destroy Glen Canyon, it is also slowly killing the Colorado River. Lake Powell loses more than 6% of the Colorado River each year to evaporation, and the amount of water lost since its creation in 1963 is worth upwards of 9 billion dollars.
Dams also encourage and enable unsustainable desert agricultural practices, displace people and communities, and exacerbate climate change. And the worst part is, they can easily be replaced by cleaner and more efficient sources of energy, such as wind or solar. If you’re interested in dams (which you should be!) and want to learn more, consider watching the documentary DamNation. The film is incredibly informative, beautifully directed, and intensely emotional. You can watch it on Amazon Prime or through their website.
“I think the public is unaware of this,” Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, explains. “I don’t think they realize that there’s a lifespan for these things.”
A 50 year lifespan, to be exact. After looking at a graph of dams organized by date of completion from the Army Corps of Engineers National Inventory of Dams, I discovered that 48,516 of the 84,000 dams in the nation are over 50 years old. That’s roughly 58% of the dams in the United States.
So what can we do about it?
One thing you can do is advocate for the removal of dams in your area and support dam removal efforts that are already in place. In his article on Patagonia’s DamNation documentary, Jason Blevins writes, “the era of rampant dam construction is long gone while the age of dam removal is dawning.”
Before offering more information about dam removal I want to add one quick sidebar: by no means are environmental advocacy or conservation groups (the smart ones at least) suggesting that every dam in the country be blown up. We are simply asking that obsolete dams (of which there is no shortage) be destroyed so that the rivers can be restored.
Patagonia recently launched a campaign to prevent dam construction in the Balkan region of Europe. You can learn more about what is called the “Blue Heart of Europe” and donate to protect the rivers in the Balkan region by visiting this website.
If you live in the Tallahassee area, like I do, then reach out to your legislators about local dam removal efforts. The city is considering shutting down the C. H. Corn Hydroelectric Generating Station at the Lake Talquin dam in order to divert funding for solar energy. This is a big deal! It costs $85 per megawatt hour to produce hydroelectric power as opposed to $50 per megawatt hour for solar, and hydroelectricity only powers 1% of Tallahassee. Clearly solar is the direction we should be moving in. When Tallahassee’s lease on the C. H. Corn Hydroelectric Generating Station ends in June 2022, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection will take over the station, and the almost 100 year old dam will be locked up when it should be torn down.
If you aren’t in Tallahassee, then look into what dams are in your area and find out if they’re still being used, how old they are, how much energy they are actually producing, and who owns them (remember that list I included at the beginning of this post? That’ll probably be useful right about now). Reach out to legislators or even city council members about removing obsolete dams in order to restore the surrounding ecosystem. If there are any environmental protection agencies near you then consider reaching out to them about dam removal efforts.
Remember, you aren’t alone. If there is a dam near you that is blocking a beloved river then there are probably other people who want to see it taken down.
The precious few wild areas left in the United States need to remain just that: wild. I recently wrote about some wild places in Utah that stole my heart: the mighty 5 National Parks and Monument Valley. Visiting protected lands and seeing first hand how healthy and whole they are is an eye-opening experience.
It’s not too late to restore some places to their pristine, un-dammed condition. I’m not saying we all have to rappel off the side of a dam in the middle of the night in order to paint a larger crack on the side, although I fully support you if that’s what you want to do. I’m just saying that now that you know the truth about dams, it’s about damn time to knock some down.
Who’s with me?
Was this helpful? Have feedback for me? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos in this post are from Patagonia’s film “DamNation.”