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Dam Nation: In film,
a Case for Removal of Dams

by Jennifer Liebrum
Capital Press, July 9, 2014

Have we reached the dawn of the dams?

DamNation producer and underwater photographer Matt Stoecker emerges from the icy tail waters below the former Elwha Dam in a scene from DamNation. (Photo: Ben Knight) The film "DamNation" makes the discussion pretty sexy, with exploding rafts, suggestions of espionage, tears shed over the prospect of unblocked rivers and conspiracy theories.

And whether you are a river rat or merely a taxpayer, this issue is one of those that warrants a look, with more than $13 billion being spent on addressing issues caused by dams.

"There is a humongous amount of money put into recovery measures that don't work," said Greg Stahl, of the nonprofit group Idaho Rivers United. "Even if you don't fish, as a taxpayer, as a fiscally responsible citizen, this issue should get your hackles raised."

Idaho Rivers United is hosting the film's screening with Save Our Wild Salmon at the Sun Valley Opera House on Tuesday, July 15, at 6 p.m.

"We are super excited to bring this film to the Wood River Valley," Stahl said. "It tells a really compelling story of America's conquest of its rivers and the more recent trend to remove dams to restore rivers to restore communities, restore economies and to restore native species, like salmon."

Sun Valley will get a special guest with the film. Yvon Chouinard, a renowned rock climber, environmentalist and founder of the clothing company Patagonia, will speak at the screening. His company produced the film.

Stahl said the film spends a good deal of time on the topic of dams on the Snake River, where endangered salmon continue to perish because they can't navigate the rivers to spawn in their customary way.

"Removing the many dams that have low value but high costs, like the four problematic lower dams on the Snake River, will help restore water quality and flows for fish and wildlife," Stahl said. "It will reinstate the natural sediment and nutrient flow, eliminate safety risks, create opportunities for whitewater recreation, save taxpayer money and bring our rivers back to life."

Stahl was on hand in Boise when the film was shown and said there was a polarizing scene in which a group of protesters paints a dashed line and pair of scissors on the side of the 200-foot Matilija Dam in California. As the graffiti appeared under the white glare of headlamps in this time-lapse footage, Stahl wrote in his blog that the crowd cheered.

"The crowd's enthusiasm for this act of defiance might seem misplaced, but it speaks volumes to the power of this film to reach people," Stahl wrote. "It was a real-time illustration of the film's central point: the tide in the United States is turning against many of its aging and unneeded dams -- what we at IRU call high-cost, low-value dams."

"The history of thinking in the Western world is: Radical ideas eventually can become conventional," said David Montgomery, a University of Washington geomorphology professor whose commentary helps anchor the film. "A couple decades ago it was radical in terms of thinking you could take a dam out -- it was unthinkable. Go back 50 years, it was legitimately crazy talk. The conversation's changed."

In 90 minutes, Stahl said, the filmmakers tell the story of our nation's construction of more than 75,000 dams and the destruction that many of them inflict on people, fish, communities and local economies.

"From Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River to the film's particular focus on the Columbia and Snake rivers of the Pacific Northwest, 'DamNation' is an eye-opening, passion-inducing, forceful film that accurately illustrates that the era of dam building has ended while the era of dam deconstruction has dawned."

"DamNation" is also more than an inspiring story; it's a call to action. As part of the film's distribution in cities throughout the United States, signatures are being collected for a petition that will be sent to President Obama and other key elected leaders calling for removal of the four lower Snake River dams that IRU maintains inflict an extreme toll on Idaho's endangered salmon and the communities that depend on them.

"Idaho Rivers United has been working more than 20 years to restore wild salmon and steelhead runs, which were decimated by the four lower Snake River dams downstream," Stahl said. "We work every day with elected leaders and the media. We crunch numbers and analyze fish returns. We've successfully worked with our campaign partners to make our case in court, winning added protections for salmon and steelhead and paving a path toward ultimate restoration of this world-class resource. Most importantly, we mobilize people to take action. But to paraphrase Robert Frost, we have 'miles to go before we sleep.'"

"Like all constructed things, dams have a finite lifetime," Montgomery says in the film. "It's not time to pull out every dam in the country; that would be economically foolish. But it would be just as foolish not to rethink every dam in the country and try and decide which are the ones that actually still make sense in the 21st century, and which are the ones where we can get more value both economically, culturally, aesthetically, morally and ecologically out of a river system by sending it part way back to the condition it was in naturally."

"The bottom line is that we can't do our work without you, the people of Idaho, the residents of the Pacific Northwest and citizens everywhere who value healthy communities and fisheries over government waste," Stahl wrote. "Restoration of our rivers, fish and fishing-dependent communities is about the people who want responsible management of our rivers.

Tickets are available at Backwoods Sports, Sturtevants, Lost River Outfitters and Silver Creek Outfitters, as well as at

Jennifer Liebrum
Dam Nation: In film, a Case for Removal of Dams
Capital Press, July 9, 2014

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