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"DamNation" Documentary
Harkens Era of Dam Removal

by Jason Blevins
Denver Post, May 15, 2014

There are nearly 75,000 large dams in the United States. Many of them never needed to be built to begin with.
Now, some of them are failing -- and there's nobody around to fix them.

A Deadbeat Dam that a salmon advocate has 'marked' for removal. (photo: Matt Stoecker) The scratchy voice of President Franklin D. Roosevelt resonates as grainy black-and-white photos of the Hoover Dam fill the screen.

"This is an engineering victory of the first order -- another great achievement of American resourcefulness, American skill and determination," FDR said, dedicating "the greatest dam in the world" on a September afternoon in 1935.

So began America's river-choking love affair with dams and an era that saw tens of thousands federal dams erected across the country. And so begins DamNation, the engaging documentary that urges a critical look at outdated dams that are throttling rivers, decimating emblematic salmon and doing more damage than good.

When the revered environmentalist and founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, and his river-restoration biologist pal Matt Stoecker first approached Colorado filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel about making a dam-removal movie, the duo balked.

Their Red Gold environmental documentary won awards for its critical look at the proposed Pebble Mine at the headwaters of southwest Alaska's salmon-rich Kvichak and Nushagak rivers in Bristol Bay. "But we didn't know anything about dams," Rummel said.

Pebble Mine was easy. There was a bad guy -- an open-pit, hard-rock mining corporation -- and a good guy -- the people of Bristol Bay fighting for their place and their fish.

Dam removal is more topical than issue-based. It's more nuanced, with ardent, well-intentioned supporters on both sides of the argument. And both Chouinard and Stoecker are passionate activists; avid fly-fishermen perpetually railing against dams.

"We didn't want to be the propaganda arm of Patagonia. We wanted creative control," said 35-year-old Rummel.

The 87-minute documentary -- which sold out the Mayan Theatre on Wednesday -- still skews toward dam removal, but with a somewhat skeptical eye. Narrated by a casual Knight, the audience follows his character arc. We learn more about dam removal every minute and eventually find ourselves cheering a pair of midnight monkeywrenchers who paint shears and a dotted line on the 200-foot, silt-choked Matilija Dam in Southern California.

After meeting a host of DamNation's colorful characters -- including a giggling, dam-painting eco-activist, a monastic guardian of steelhead trout, a professorial author and a spirited 94-year-old who spent her life fighting every dam hater's Holy Grail: the Glen Canyon Dam -- it's hard to not at least consider site-specific dam removal as an essential tool in restoring some of the nation's most struggling rivers.

There are 75,000 to 85,000 dams three-feet or higher in the U.S., most of them built in the dam boom between 1950 and 1970. The era of rampant dam construction is long gone while the age of dam removal is dawning. In 2012, the largest dam removal project in history saw the tumbling of Washington's 108-foot Elwha and 210-foot Glines Canyon dams on the Elwha River. Not even two years later, Rummel and Knight's cameras captured the rapid return of Pacific Salmon and trout species to the river.

The movie draws a bead on four 100-foot dams on Washington's lower Snake River. Clogged with sediment and lacking any passage for native salmon, the dams generate little hydropower. DamNation spend a good amount of time on those dams -- including startling testimony from a retired Army Corps of Engineers engineer who calls the Lower Snake River dams "a travesty" -- and urges viewers to cajole President Obama and Congress to support removal. (As of May 15, an online petition has almost 24,000 signatures.)

"It has to become a national issue," former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt tells the camera.

Rummel and Knight include perfunctory quotes from dam supporters, but the framed perspectives hue radical, an intentional reversal of the once unthinkable, anti-American notion of removing dams.

California congressman Tom McClintock and Washington's Rep. Doc Hastings ardently oppose dam removal and DamNation captures them in near hysterical throes, quoting McClintock branding dam removal supporters as "unabashedly nihilistic."

Rummel and Knight -- whose Felt Soul Media outfit was sparked by years attending Mountainfilm in Telluride -- admit their filmmaking leans toward protecting natural resources. They want to make movies that matter as well as entertain. DamNation fits that bill, with captivating imagery, compelling characters, a dash of monkeywrenching and a not-so-subtle message.

"The point of this film was to just look at dams. Too many people see them as a part of the landscape," Rummel said. "It doesn't have to be that way."

Patagonia is hosting a free screening of DamNation June 5 at 7 p.m. at its Denver (1431 15th St.) and Boulder (1212 Pearl St.) stores.

Related Pages:
Northwest RiverPartners, Grant PUD Receive Awards From NHA by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 5/2/14

Watch White Salmon being breached, by Andy Maser on Vimeo.

Two Corrections:

  1. The four Lower Snake River dams DO provide "passage for native salmon" but it is dangerous for the downstream juvenile migration -- about 2 out of 5 juveniles survive their journey to the ocean passing through eight reservoirs and eight dams.

    A leading cause of mortality that receives scant attention is that before the dams and reservoirs were set in place, juveniles would be flushed to the ocean by the powerful spring run-off. Now these small fish must actively swim to the sea, their fat storage depleted along the way.

    "20% of sub-yearling chinook had lipids < 1% implies 20% delayed mortality for sub-yearlings." (see

  2. The four Lower Snake River dams produce sizable amounts of electricity. In an average year, these four produce about 1050 MW of electricity -- "enough to power the city of Seattle" is the quote that often follows. A decade ago, dam supporters contended that renewable energy could never replace this power output. Since then, large amounts of wind energy have been brought online in the region, an average year provding 2100 MW. Fact is, the Pacific NW continues to have a large power surplus.

Jason Blevins
"DamNation" Documentary Harkens Era of Dam Removal
Denver Post, May 15, 2014

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