The History of Dams

by Cleo Woefle-Erskine

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.

The water under ground is always moving. Cavitation takes an inch a year off Bonneville’s turbines and piles tons of silt behind the Colorado River dams. This is the Water Underground as it seeps from a rock fissure, wicks through interstitial channels in soil or stem and surges through channels and seas. The dams have been built. Suburbs sprawl out onto dry plains. Farmers and salmon finally have a common enemy: cities with the political power to suck up all the water the West can give and still keep growing.

My own city is one of them, possessing a relentless power to turn streams to storm drains, oaks and grasses and maple and rock to freeway and subdivision and live-work lofts. The farmers fight to keep water by raising cattle, juggling numbers, and sending letters to Congress.

The salmon fight by swimming.

In the spring, millions of salmon smolts wash downstream past slack water reservoirs and through chutes that jet them out over locks and dams. Their heads point upriver, smelling the sequence of scents of the tributaries they pass so that one day they can find their way back. They follow the ghosts of smolts dead by turbines and the false currents of irrigation diversions, who now show them how to feel for the river s real channel. Against all odds, they’ll make it as long as there’s water. The wild keeps on living paved over, constricted, fragmented, laced with poison, degraded, disappearing. The ghost fish far outnumber the living. Their ranks are growing: sockeye, chum, qapdo, c waam, silvery minnow, chinook, Colorado chub. To survive in these times, one must either turn away from the human gift of foresight to the comforting blue glow of the Nature Channel, or else place a lot of faith in ghosts.

This is the water underground, as it leaps photon-charged to rise and rise and rise to clouds seeded with lofted forest pollen and insect duff, falls on roofs and streets and runs down rivers and streams that shelter salmon and sturgeon, oyster and otter whose bodies, consumed and spread across the land return nutrients long washed to sea.

Here, at the end of the salmon’s journey,we can do something. I don’t know if the salmon can make it another 50 years, a Karuk elder says. These dams are up for relicensing now. With a bang of a gavel, their demise could be ensured. With support on the ground, these legal victories could lead to momentum for broader change. Empires crumble slowly. Small acts of resistance accumulate: water collects behind a dam. It finds its way into cracks and crevices, probing, moving. Pressure builds.

Before the storm of America swept down on the O’odham, the Modoc, the Klallam, and the Lakota they had only legends and vague rumors of what was to come. The whirlwind that swept over left a world completely transformed. In the blink of an eye another far-off storm could trigger a flash flood that would rush across desert pavement, come down sheer sandstone canyons, and build into a wall of water that slams down on those cracks. Maybe the ghost fish, after a century of beating against dams with their heads would finally wear them down.