Damnation: America's Deadbeat Dam Problem
by James Joiner
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.
Yvon Chouinard has crusaded for years to protect fisheries and ecosystems from irreparable damage wrought by massive totems to government waste that most people believe to be benign.
Those behemoths are "deadbeat dams," derelict man-made blockages that have long-since ceased to have any real benefit -- a subject that, for the most part, the average person isn't even aware exists.
Basically, spurred on by an endless supply of public works money, large companies surveyed every conceivable spot to build a land in America, lobbied for government contracts, then started digging -- even if dams never needed to be built there. Now, years later, a lot of these companies are failing, and there's no one around to maintain any of them. Without repair, it's leveling ecosystems and leaving areas increasingly exposed to flooding and the ill-effects of natural disaster.
Chouinard founded Patagonia, the clothing brand, but he's trying to refine his and the company's legacy as a standard bearer for environmental activism, and making sure you know these dams exist.
Their new film, Damnation, is its rallying cry.
The doc seeks to bring that conversation to the forefront, and it makes a convincing case. Deftly weaving cinematically stunning montages, daredevil acts, and archival footage to present what would normally be a dizzying -- and mind numbing -- amount of information, the award-winning documentary makes a persuasive argument for the removal of some of our nation's deadbeat dams.
We caught up with Chouinard and biologist-cum-filmmaker Matt Stoecker to talk about the movie, why they made it, and what the real story is behind some of the nearly 75 thousand large dams in the United States.
MATT STOECKER: The main reason we wanted to make the film is that we've been working on all of these (dam removal) projects that are starting to be successful, and it's really hard to relay the scientific data supporting what happens after removal. We wanted to make something that would visually make people care about free flowing rivers and see just how amazing it is. To see a dam come out, the explosion and taking it down with excavators, to see the impacts and response of a river right afterwards -- it's something you have to see to be impressed by. We're always ranting about dams, but you really need to show people what it looks like.
YVON CHOUINARD: My main reason was to establish a precedent that if you make a mess, you have to clean it up. Look at what just happened at the Elk River. They bankrupted the company, and they're walking away from it. When Peabody Coal walks away from West Virginia they're going to bankrupt the company and walk away. They're not gonna restore all those streams and mountaintops. The laws have to change so that you put up a trust fund to restore -- honestly restore (the damage that you've created). There's no way they could do Bristol Bay, the Pebble Mine, if they had to do that. They're going to destroy I don't know how many lakes and an entire fishery. Right now it's okay to spoil the planet and walk away.
MS: The history is pretty amazing in the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Tennessee Valley Authority -- a lot of their dams were built for no specific purpose. The agencies just started competing with each other for prime dam building locations. It got to the point where they were surveying all over the place just to find places where dams could be built, and then racing to get funding to feed their internal machine to keep building dams. And that machine has gotten so big, and there are so many hatcheries that are supposedly mitigating the effects of the dams, that nobody wants to pull the plug on the funding for all of it. I think that's one of the big things that we're up against, all those federal jobs and all the budgets going to them.
YS: The way to fight a lot of this stuff is to appeal to the conservatives. It's just a waste of money. All these subsidies. For every hatchery salmon caught, it's absolutely absurd how much it costs taxpayers, and the return is so small.
MS: Fiscally conservative people should be our closest allies, because dams, they're the worst business model you could ever propose. If somebody came to you and said, "I want to build a $50 million dam, and every year it's going to fill in with more sediment, and eventually it's going to be completely full and have no function at all and eventually it's going to evaporate more water than it's used for throughout the year. . ." It's the worst investment you can think of.
YC: Especially if you have to pay for it. The true cost of doing it. And you gotta add on that it's going to destroy a salmon run for eternity. The numbers don't add up at all.
MS: They're fully subsidized by the government. It's a joke.
YC: The idea for the film came while we were at a film festival watching films, and we went to the South Yuba River, and there's a dam there, the Englebright, which is a travesty. It was built by the government for a private company which was doing hydraulic mining. At that time it was against the law for the waste to go into rivers, so what they did was basically build a dam to stop the stuff from going down. And so there it is now, it's there, it produces a tiny little bit of electricity for Pacific Gas and Electric, and its main use is it's got houseboats on it.
MS: Who are actually mobilizing against taking it out because they've got these boats and way of life. Weekend houseboats.
MS: We're going right after Obama and the head of NOAA fisheries and other agencies that ultimately can make the call on the Snake River dams with Congress, and calling on them to start looking at a process that could remove those dams. Hopefully this film will put a lot of pressure on them and get this snowballing.
YC: Every dam that comes out leads the way, because every one is a success. No one ever regrets taking out a dam.
MS: I'm really curious to see how some of these politicians react. I welcome them coming after us. They know it's coming. We were begging people to tell us their side of the story, and give us a balanced view. I'd love for them to talk more about it and come out publicly.
MS: We're seeing results. Two years before the Kennebec River dams were taken out, they were seeing runs of a couple hundred thousand fish. The Edwards dam was removed in '99 and the Fort Halifax was removed in 2008, and by 2011 they had this run of over 2 million fish. There's exponential, undeniable growth. All this concern about the environmental hazards of taking out dams has been unfounded, and people are seeing that it's beneficial right off the bat.
YC: We're way ahead of Europe as far as the idea of taking out dams. There are a lot of countries in Europe that see them as clean energy, and they're committed to them. Although Europe is way ahead of us in practically everything else environmentally. I've been fighting to take out some dams on the Rhone river system, because it has salmon, but it's been a tough one.
YC: But they are restoring rivers. When I was in my late twenties I'd go to this outdoor show in Cologne, and I didn't have any money to stay in hotels, so I was sleeping along the banks of the Rhine, and you'd just gag. I mean, it was so polluted the smell was just unbelievable. And they've cleaned up the Rhine to the point that there's salmon going all the way up to Switzerland, it's unbelievable. So they've done a great job of that, but they're still really heavily dependent on dams. Europe doesn't really have the petroleum and stuff that we do.
YC: It's a process. We have to convince everybody, and everybody is against it at first. I mean, those dams in Chile, Doug Tompkins is singlehandedly responsible for those three dams not going up. He's taken out full-page ads in Santiago newspapers every two weeks for the last few years, and they're really hard hitting ads. So no politician wants to touch this now, and he's turned it around to where 76% of the Chilean people don't want the dams. And one guy did this.
YC: It's an entertaining film. Is it going to take out dams, and is it going to prevent other dams from going in? That's what I care about. I don't care about entertaining people. So that's the whole bottom line.
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.
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