Making the Case for Dam Removal
There is a battle going on between green factions over our rivers: those who want to harness the immense power of the earth’s waterways to generate clean, renewable hydroelectricity are at odds with others who are working to remove dams to allow fish to swim freely in unshackled rivers, leaving nature alone to restore balance to the impacted ecosystems. With all of our focus here at CleanTechnica on the clean energy benefits of hydroelectric power generation from dams and how they combat man-caused climate change, I was eager to hear some facts from the other side of the coin by way of a documentary about dam removal “for the environment.”
The documentary film DamNation paints a picture of the United States in the early 20th century as a nation built on the concrete foundations of countless dams erected as part of a federal stimulus program to create jobs as a driver of economic growth coming out of the Great Depression. In addition to the jobs created in the construction phase, many dams also generate electricity, which was a key piece of the infrastructure demanded by our ballooning population.
There is no disputing the massive amounts of sustainable, renewable hydroelectricity that dams can generate — the power of water moving downhill can be seen in the sheer force on display at any waterfall. Humans attempting to harness that power seems only natural and, over the last 100 years, hydroelectric power has grown to what is now 7.1% of US electric power generation (source). Dams are also built to provide flood control on otherwise unpredictable watersheds, to create bodies of water for recreation, and finally, to store water for use in dry years (Yes, I’m talking to you, California!).
The Case for Dam Removal
Supported by a balanced mix of facts paired with relevant historical context, the film presents case studies of a handful of dams across the US, weighing the pros and cons with the majority of those studied falling short of being able to justify a continued existence. The film understandably has a heavy focus on the benefits of restoring a river’s natural ecosystem while not fully addressing the gaps left in the wake of their removal — specifically, the immense amounts of hydroelectric power they generate — but still manages to present a compelling fact-based argument for dam removal based on the following key points.
Removing dams allows fish to return to their native spawning grounds. The film states that fish are so resilient that they have returned to spawning grounds that had been cut off by dams for almost 100 years within weeks of dam removal! Restoring the fish populations is not only beneficial to fish communities but to the entire river ecosystems – animals that eat the fish, bacteria that feed on fish waste, and on through the food chain.
A restored river ecosystem will produce a significant fish population, which can then be responsibly harvested as food. Many of our natural fish populations have been decimated by dams over the last 100 years, and along with them, the economies that revolved around the fish. Fish are a great natural source of protein and becoming stewards of their natural environment allows these populations to once again be responsibly utilized for food.
Removing dams restores natural sediment flows that provide crucial material to mitigate shoreline erosion. While in a natural state, this is a benefit; however, sediment carried by our rivers also poses a major challenge in dam removal as there is typically a large buildup of sediment trapped with the water behind dams. Aging dams typically store more sediment which reduces the amount of water they can actually store.
Removing dams restores the natural flow of the river for recreational purposes. Many whitewater rafting, kayaking, canoeing, and tubing fans will be able to once again utilize the full stretch of the natural flow of restored rivers for recreation.
Finally, we can leverage technology to combat the lost benefits that dams provided thereby reducing the negative impacts of dam removal. Specifically, we can:
- Reduce home energy usage to offset the need for the hydroelectric power generation.
- Reduce water usage to offset the need for massive amounts of water storage
- Store excess water as groundwater by way of recharge fields. This has the added benefit of eliminating water storage losses to evaporation as sub-surface water can’t evaporate.
- Grow region-appropriate crops which will improve the efficiency of agriculture.
This is a solid video for anyone looking to get grounded in the dam removal movement. As with most documentaries, there is an obvious bias in how the material is presented but not to such an extent that it detracts from the facts.
The film makes the case that restoring valuable river ecosystems is worth losing the benefits we currently get from clean hydroelectric power generation, recreation, and flood control. The film advocates assessing each of our dams, then making an unbiased assessment of the pros and cons of each dam individually based on the current benefits vs what we would lose without it:
“Like all constructed things, dams have a finite lifetime. It’s not time to, like, pull out every dam in the country – it would be economically foolish. But it would be just as foolish not to rethink every dam in the country and try to decide which are the ones that still make sense in the 21st century.”
This felt surprisingly balanced and much more realistic than the “remove all dams” message I was sure the film would close with.
I will leave you with a quote shared in the film from an early pioneer in the dam removal movement, Ed Abbey, that I found powerful and applicable to much of our core content here at CleanTechnica:
“Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.”
For more information on the film, visit its website at http://damnationfilm.com
Activist Ed Abbey’s manifesto, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” can be found on Amazon.com