Dams drove agricultural, industrial, and urban development in the West, but, by altering natural flow patterns and trapping sediment, created complex problems for migratory fish and downstream ecosystems. Since the late 1800s, 76,000 dams over six feet tall have been constructed in the contiguous U.S. A 2003 Heinz Foundation report estimated that by 2020, 80% of U.S. dams will reach the end of their design and regulatory lifespan. We see removing many defunct dams as a crucial part of watershed restoration, and promote water conservation and greywater reuse as important steps in building autonomous, ecologically sustainable water systems.
The rise and decline of Dam Nation
by Cleo Woefle-Erskine
excerpted and adapted from Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground
For the first fifty years of the twentieth century, dam builders' conquest of the land and waters was unstoppable, and people's faith in the conquering power of technology was also without limit.When the Manifestly Destined looked out over the land, you saw deficiency: an incongruity between what was there and what was familiarly usable. Pre-existing human relationships to the land honed over millennia of necessity, of error, of success was invisible to the various explorers eyes. The functioning commons, the dynamic equilibrium of fire-managed forests and prairies, the intricate stewardship and sharing of a river's salmon runs between dozens of autonomous peoples: rejected as impossible, these had to be denied and if necessary eradicated, with the plow, the canal, the cattle ranch, the grid of 160 acre wheat farms.
In the arid West, water which had meant life became liquid wealth. Dams became the engines of commerce. Once exploding populations sucked groundwater dry, dam water turned worthless desert land into something that could be speculated on, subdivided, and sold as a small slice of paradise. The Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers bigger and bigger dams, across ever-deepening canyons. This dam-building frenzy led to the rise of the supreme monuments, the mega-dams. Throughout the West they impounded millions of acre-feet of water and generated hydroelectricity too cheap to meter. Cities grew explosively. They reached for more rivers to dam, blasted coal and uranium out of the land to generate more power, and they haven't stopped yet. The long arm of global trade brings the products of forests, rivers, factories, and farms in faraway countries to supermarkets and shopping malls. The power elite capture the government and use it to redesign the plumbing of the West training the spigots to their own enterprises, irrigating the vast plantations of the Imperial, San Joaquin, and Sacramento valleys, worked by the West s equivalent of slave labor. Irrigation led to servitude, not liberation; to cartels, not small-scale democracies; and the centralized water bureaucracy was a servant of the hydro-imperialists, not an honest broker of the public interest.
This worldview metastasized like a cancer from Bureau of Reclamation engineers to the rest of the world, always with the same bottom line: drowned riverine ecosystems, displaced communities, flooded sacred sites, extinctions, and resource privatization. Third World nations buying the hydro-power rap must hock their futures to the merciless cadre of global bankers, submitting to the neoliberal structure of the IMF and World Bank. Water and power must be privatized, jacking up the price for basic necessities.
Why remove many dams?
During the height of the age of dams, dam opponents had little political power. As time passed, how- ever, resistance to dams rose. Tribes whose fishing rights were threatened, displaced communities, conservationists who appreciated the aesthetic beauty of wild areas, commercial fishermen, and even river rafters organized campaigns that began to convince the public of the benefits of wild rivers. After long battles in the courtrooms and along the rivers, some dam projects were blocked by court injunctions and some impounded water was released. But for those who depended on free flowing rivers, it was too little, too late.
Today, many politicians—and even some environmentalists—argue that dam removal is impractical and economically unfeasible. But 467 U.S. dams have been removed since 1912. The first were old mining dams in mountainous areas, which had long ceased to function. There was little controversy over the removal of these dams, because they provided neither hydroelectricity nor irrigation water. But when salmon-destroying dams still generate a profit, the pitched battles for dam removal grow fierce.
The 1999 breaching of Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine was a milestone in the dam removal struggle. It marked the first time the government ordered the destruction of a hydroelectric dam against the dam owner’s wishes, and it became the first functioning U.S. hydroelectric dam to come down. Since then about forty large dams have been removed. Fish populations usually recover quickly. On Butte Creek in California’s Sacramento Valley, spring runs of chinook salmon increased from just fourteen to twenty thousand after several diversion dams were removed.
Dam removal can be a tricky and expensive process. Trainloads of sediment—often laced with heavy metals—must sometimes be removed from behind the dam and disposed of somewhere else. Currently, lost hydroelectricity and irrigation water are replaced by expanding another dam or fossil fuel power plant. In some cases these trade-offs are worth the restoration of salmon runs. In others, they merely reinforce the worldview that considers some landscapes expendable. A group called Restore Hetch Hetchy wants to remove O’Shaughnessy Dam, which provides water to San Francisco, from the beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley. This restoration is possible, they say, because the Calaveras Dam could be raised by two hundred feet to provide extra water storage. However, raising Calaveras will submerge hundreds of acres of oak forest—wild land that is much more accessible to millions of city-dwellers than Hetch Hetchy. Is our only choice between the lesser of two dams?
It should be noted here that dam removal alone will not solve dams’ problems if it is driven by the same attitude with which they were built. Dam builders view rivers as conduits for water and the consolidation of power, though their stated intentions are to generate electricity, irrigate crops, and control floods. In a healthy river, there is no linear progression from point A to point B. There are backwaters. Nutrients get bound up in bogs. Water disappears into marshes, evaporates into the sky, and is sucked up by plants. Instead of one mega-dam to regulate its flow, a wild river has innumerable structures and creatures moving nutrients around, transporting water through its cycle, holding back floods. Dam removal is a powerful metaphor for a shift in how we think about watersheds, as it requires us to substitute a multiplicity of strategies to replace a dam’s monolithic solution.
The Columbia/Snake, given current, creates salmon, biological richness, and reverent cultures; given Snake River dams, creates electricity, polarized rhetoric, extinction, and heartbreak. We become our choices.
—David James Duncan, “A Prayer for the Salmon’s Second Coming”
If all the big dams came down today, millions of people would be left without drinking water. The lights would go out in almost every major U.S. city. Huge swaths of this country’s agriculture lands–California’s Central and Imperial valleys, the pastures and wheat fields of the Rocky Mountain states, and the orchards of Arizona—would dry up. U.S. society would grind to a halt. Dam removal is very difficult, and life after dams will be uncharted territory. None of that should stop us from fighting as hard as we can to make dams relics of the past, while some salmon, fertile soils, and floodplain wetlands still remain. There is no legitimate scientific or economic argument for leaving most dams in place, and many, many reasons—particular to each dam and river—for these archaic structures to be taken out.
Dam builders, industrialists, agribusiness corporations, and politicians would no doubt make different choices than you and I, common dwellers in our watersheds. Here, in the heart of the mega-dam empire, we have the opportunity to struggle alongside the salmon, the tribes, and people around the world to bring down dams and to build societies where they are no longer necessary.
Life in the age of dams depends on interlocking systems for producing food, delivering water, and generating power. There are ways to reform theses systems so that they are less destructive. We can live with less electricity, and generate it from the sun, wind, and tides. We can support small farmers who use water wisely and restore wetlands and riparian corridors on their lands. We can consume fewer products, so that dams will not be built on distant rivers to make the disposable trifles that fill our stores. We can clean up our groundwater, recharge our aquifers, and demand an end to the production of toxic waste. All of these actions require changes in personal habits and popular action. The frontlines of the water wars are not just in India, Brazil, or Bolivia: they are along every urban creek buried under concrete, every municipal water system threatened by privatization, every polluted waterway, and every well pumped dry. We can march and write and litigate and sabotage and take to the streets alongside the world’s water warriors.
Those actions are only a beginning. Life after dams will require abandoning the destructive infrastructure of the present era and replacing it, watershed by watershed, with systems that do not destroy the world in order to sustain human society. Water is essential to life. By choice, or by catastrophe, we will one day live with less. The choice is mine, yours, ours.
Strategies for an undammed world
- Oppose new dam construction
- Reduce consumption of goods and food produced with dams abroad
- Support dam removal as part of watershed restoration plans, and as mitigation for any new dam construction
- Demand removal of dams that block salmon and other fish passage in cases where hatcheries, fish ladders, or other mitigation strategies have not supported healthy fish runs.
- Support scientific research into dam removal effects on rivers, and incorporate findings into new dam removals.
- Create and participate in participatory decision-making processes around dam removal and river restoration decision-making.
- Minimize problems through careful study, removal of contaminated sediment, gradual removal
Current dam removals
The Elwha River flows out of Olympic National Park and through the homeland of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe near Port Angeles, WA. Two dams block salmon passage and sediment transport on the Elwha. Both will be removed within the next few years. Many studies support the Elwha dam removals to restore salmon runs and estuarine habitat, and an extensive public process has built consensus around dam removal. To read an interview with Rob Elofson, River Restoration coordinator for the tribe, click this link.
In 2007, Portland General Electric blew up the Marmot Dam on Oregon’s Sandy River, which provided electric power for Portland. The river washed accumulated sediment downstream more quickly than anticipated, Coho salmon swam past the dam the day after it was breached, and spawning habitat has greatly improved. See time lapse of the dam removal here, and the preliminary site assessment in EOS.
The Milltown Dam, built in 1907 at the Clark Fork-Blackfoot confluence near Missoula, once submerged about a mile of the Blackfoot's narrow floodplain and the Clark Fork's wide valley. After the dam went up, millions of tons of arsenic and toxic tailings collected behind it, washed down from copper, silver and gold mines near the Clark Fork's Butte headwaters. In 1983, 120 miles of the upper Clark Fork basin were designated as a Superfund site. The Milltown dam removal was a key part of the Superfund cleanup, and now that it's gone, a levee diverts the river into a straight, riprapped channel.
Behind the levee, bulldozers scrape toxic muck out of rectangular pits, and freight cars haul it 150 miles upstream to dump. Above the diversion, the river splits and reconverges in a tangle of silver threads around sandbars littered with toppled birches and alders. High flows this year  ate away huge swaths of bank and deposited copper and arsenic-contaminated sediments downstream. [excerpted from Riparian Repair by Cleo Woelfle-Erskine]