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“DamNation” Film Wins Enviro Prize and Shines Light on Dam Removal

“Dams represented a pivotal part of U.S. development, but like many things we took it too far,” Ben Knight says in the new documentary film DamNation. Knight narrated, edited, and co-directed the film, which takes a provocative look at the recent movement to remove old and outdated dams, to restore natural river systems.

Produced by eco-friendly clothing company Patagonia, DamNation takes a sweeping look at recent efforts to remove dams in Maine, Washington, and elsewhere across the U.S. (watch dramatic video of removal of Washington’s Condit Dam). The film profiles activists and advocates who are working to free the rivers, and delves into the science, economics, and history of dams. (See “The American Nile.”)

Between 1950 and 1970 about 30,000 dams were erected in the U.S., blocking a large percentage of the navigable rivers in the lower 48, according to the film. Although the dams were well intentioned, to control flooding, provide recreational opportunities, generate hydropower, and provide water for irrigation and other uses, many of the structures have outlived their usefulness, argues the film. And the harm caused by the dams, in blocking runs of salmon and other fish, preventing the flow of sediments that nourish rivers and estuaries, and choking off the flow of water downstream, is now better understood.

The Snake and Columbia Rivers in the West now have only eight percent of their original salmon runs, in large part because of dams. In 1992 only one salmon made it past all eight dams into Idaho’s picturesque Redfish Lake, an alpine water body named because the surface used to churn with sockeye salmon.

Their numbers have been partially replaced with hatchery-raised salmon, many of which must be trucked or barged downstream. But, in the words of one of the interviewees in the film, they are “beaten to death, artificially spawned, and then turned into fertilizer.” That’s the fate of the few hatchery-raised salmon that do survive to breeding age and return to the area where they were raised (in concrete ponds).

Last night, DamNation was presented with the “Documentary Award for Environmental Advocacy,” and a $10,000 cash prize, by the 2014 Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C.

2 Key Messages

In introducing the film at the festival, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt (1993-2001) showed a piece of concrete that had been taken from the Condit Dam. Babbitt was interviewed in the film, in which he talked about how he had suggested to President Clinton that an old dam in Washington be removed in 1994. But the country was not yet ready for that idea then.

The film has two key messages, Babbitt said. The first was a demonstration of the power of restoration. Dam removal “requires some imagination,” he said, because “in our culture we thought [dams] were there forever.”

The second message was a demonstration of the power of political action. “Twenty years ago not a single dam had been taken down in the U.S. for the purposes of ecological restoration, the concept was unheard of,” said Babbitt. “Now it’s a new era.”

Scientists, advocates, and Native American groups are gaining momentum at removing old dams, although there are still thousands of candidates, some of which are filled up with sediment and no longer useful, the film argues. Momentum has shifted, although there are still many hurdles, including funding, bureaucracy, and some political resistance.

In the film, no opponents of dam removal agreed to speak on camera, although a dam operator expressed reservations about the concept. At rallies, removal opponents chanted slogans to save hydropower jobs, accusing the removal crowd of being on the “lunatic fringe.”

Although the film did profile some activists who paint cracks and scissors on dams they’d like to see removed, for the most part, removal supporters included scientists, government officials, a U.S. Army Corps civil engineer, and representatives from the burgeoning whitewater recreation industry–people not easily dismissed as a lunatic fringe.

David Montgomery, a geology professor at the University of Washington, said in the film: “We don’t need to remove all dams now, but we should rethink all dams. If some no longer make sense, we should get rid of them.”

With a poetic touch, author David James Duncan said, ”Water is the same as the blood in our bodies; stagnation is death.”

During the Q&A after the screening at the Environmental Film Festival, several of the commenters noted that the film’s exclusive focus on the U.S. may paint a rosier picture than is warranted overall, with many new large dams now in progress or planning in Asia, Africa, South America, and elsewhere.

But DamNation co-director Travis Rummel told the audience: “I hope that after the film you will go out and look at the dams in your backyard and question them.”

 

Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen LightingBuild Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.

Comments

  1. Sally Shoal
    April 4, 2:05 pm

    Matt, I can address your question re: greenhouse gases. This theory that dams create methane and greenhouse gas emissions is just that, a theory. The idea is that when water levels fluctuate to lower levels, the exposed river bed emits greenhouse gases. This may possibly be an accurate theory for lake-like reservoirs created by dams, but it is extremely difficult to make this conclusion without baseline data showing what the emissions were prior to dams with the natural fluctuations that occurred in the river bed. For run-of-river projects like the Snake River dams, they don’t actually fluctuate the river bed much at all. The river naturally fluctuated annually during the spring runoff (higher flows) and the dry summer period (lower flows) and also during heavy rain events, before the dams were built. These hydropower projects don’t actually fluctuate the river much at all, especially since the discovery decades ago that this is harmful to fish and causes stranding issues (even though before dams, the river fluctuated naturally with rain and snow melt events and inevitably stranded fish). It is a far, far reach to say the dams are the cause of these emissions when they were likely to have occurred even more dramatically prior to the dams. It is not much of a reach at all to say that the dams have helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions even further by helping to reduce severe river fluctuations.

    As for the large lakes dams created behind high-head projects, to reach the conclusion that this causes high greenhouse gas releases, again, there needs to be a baseline to even make this conclusion. Since that data does not exist, this theory is merely speculation. But I do know that these days, lake levels behind the dams are maintained at the same level for as long as possible. They rarely fluctuate widely enough to even measure emissions for their impact on the environment.

  2. Matt Stoecker
    April 3, 5:51 pm

    Hi Terry,

    Thanks again for helping us with an interview and providing contacts while making the film. As you’ll see in the film we utilized several of these contacts and info you provided in the film. I wanted to respond to a couple things you write here and provide a few sources that I hope are useful:

    “there is roughly 80,000 dams in the country and only 50 or 1/16th of those have been removed”.
    American Rivers has identified over 1000 dams removed in the U.S. with over 50 removed last year alone and the annual amount increasing yearly.
    Source:
    http://www.americanrivers.org/initiatives/dams/faqs/

    “keeps our carbon foot half that of anywhere else in the country”.
    More and more studies coming out are showing that dams are major greenhouse gas emitters; including potent methane. I know of no studies that have assessed the true contribution of greenhouse gas emissions at Snake River dams. Do you have any studies detailing how clean these dams are? Thanks for any info.
    Sources:
    http://cleantechnica.com/2012/08/09/dam-drawdown-an-overlooked-global-warming-culprit/
    http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es4003907

    I hope you get to see the film soon and thanks again for your help.

    -Matt

  3. Sally Shoal
    Portland, OR
    April 3, 1:14 pm

    dstrwren, I don’t think anyone truly wants to continue barging fish downstream for eternity. The goal is to make fish passage in-river safe for the fish to better levels than barging does. We are already seeing that happen. The survival difference between barged fish and in-river fish gets smaller every year, thanks to the billions of dollars NW citizens have spent to make it so. This measure was used to help not jeopardize the fish until fish passage improvements at the dams were safe. What we are doing is working and folks just need to relax and watch our massive investment work!

  4. Sally Shoal
    Portland, Or
    April 3, 1:10 pm

    Matt, my comment about the film actually cutting a pro-dam activist was in regards to the write-up that stated no pro-dam activists agreed to comment in the film. This is an untrue statement.

    The 4% figure you use for how much the Snake River dams provide energy is an average over time. The fact is that those dams are largely used for high peak loads and power emergencies. So what happens if the dams are removed and we get severely cold temperatures with zero wind and zero sunshine? Well, we would get blackouts, and I can’t imagine people would be happy having their electricity shut down during such events. We cannot rely on wind and solar as ways to meet such events and it is unrealistic to suggest this can be done.

    The leading scientists and retired judge you refer to are actually well known in the NW for their bias. There are many other leading fishery scientists who do not agree with these statements. Water temperatures are a problem throughout the Snake River and removal of these four dams will not change that. You would have to remove them all. And frankly, as climate change continues to increase temperatures, I think the region will find dams like Dworshak, that has the ability to store cold water at the bottom of the reservoir and release it in the hot summer months, will be beneficial to water temperature control. It is a very, very rare case when water temperatures become lethal through the Snake River dams thanks to the cold water releases from Dworshak. And before you go and blame the dams for the high temperatures, you must provide a baseline of what the temperatures would be in 95-100 degree weather if the dams weren’t in place. This river is not stagnant. Far from it. It flows well until the late summer months when it would have normally reduced to low levels anyway, without the dams.

    As for water quality problems in the reservoirs, I am not sure what you are referring to other than temperature, which is not typically an issue. Toxins are not the fault of the dams. They exist because of industry and those issues are also being addressed.

    So in short, I stand firm that this film is showing extreme bias and is misleading in many aspects.

  5. Matt Stoecker
    April 2, 7:30 pm

    Hi Sally,

    Thanks for your comments. The film does includes interviews and speeches from several pro dam, anti dam removal, voices including Congressman Tom McClintock, a Bureau of Reclamation dam operator on the Elwha, Bureau of Reclamation dam guide at Grand Coulee Dam, Jim Yost with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, and covers a pro-dam rally and anti dam removal hearing in Pasco WA. All pro dam politicians we contacted for interviews said no. We interviews more than 50 people, so many great interviews with folks from both sides of the issue did not make the final cut, including Terry. We simply couldn’t fit all of the dams, issue, and interviewees into 90 minutes.

    The film does not advocate for Grand Coulee Dam removal and includes it to show the largest hydro dam in the U.S. and to discuss the topic of hydro power.

    The 4 lower Snake River Dams only provide 4% of the region’s power and studies have shown how this is readily replaced with renewables. Neither modifications to fish passage facilities or increased spill at these dams solves the problem of inadequate water quality problems in their reservoirs; including lethal and worsening water temps. Leading fisheries scientists and a recently retired federal judge overseeing wild salmon recovery in the Columbia/Snake River system agree that removing these dams is the best action that can be taken to restore what was once our greatest salmon river, and help the communities, tribes, and ecosystems it supports.

    Thanks for the review Brian.

    Matt Stoecker
    Co-Producer, DamNation

  6. Terry Flores
    portland
    April 2, 6:50 pm

    I was interviewed for the film and my understanding is I was cut. (I haven’t seen it as yet). As executive director of an organization that is very involved in promoting clean hydro in the Northwest and keeping the Snake River dams, a focus of the film, I was surprised by that. Fact is the premise of the film e.g. that there is a new era of dam removal is false – there is roughly 80,000 dams in the country and only 50 or 1/16th of those have been removed – many smaller ones with no power generation! Some dams should be removed if they have outlived their usefulness or their benefits but the numbers don’t support the notion of a movement. And, opinion polls in the Northwest continue to show overwhelming support for hydro which provides 90% or our renewable energy and keeps our carbon foot half that of anywhere else in the country. Billions have been spent to protect fish at the dams and in restoring habitat affected by them. I have to agree with those that suggest time and energy would be better spent focusing on other places where dams are being built that don’t have those kind of protections.

  7. dsrtwren
    April 2, 6:50 pm

    It is a great film and it did have people who opposed dam removal in it. That was not the focus of the film, but they made it clear that not everyone is behind this effort. However, that is irrelevant. The dominant paradigm is pro-dam, and this is trying to educate us not to blindly support them. Some should and need to come out. I live in the PNW and, like many others, wish that they would free the lower snake river. As they pointed out in the film the amount of power we get from those 4 dams is minimal and could be made up with a handful of wind turbines. Barging fish down rivers is ludicrous.

  8. Sally Shoal
    Portland, OR
    April 2, 5:15 pm

    Yes, it was Terry Flores, NW RiverPartners. She is in the trailer but was cut from the film. We are not sure why. Grand Coulee removal is even more unlikely since this project not only provides energy for most of Seattle, but it is highly utilized for flood control and flow stability downstream for fish migration. Right now, there are talks about paying big, big money for fish passage around this project. If that happens, the chance of removal is even more unlikely. The dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers are well maintained and highly depended upon. The Elwha and Condit dams definitely fit the definition of useless and antiquated.

  9. Sally Shoal
    Portland, OR
    April 2, 4:58 pm

    This article states that no opponents of dam removal agreed to speak on film and that is simply not true. I know for a fact that at least one dam removal opponent was filmed for the movie but was cut from it. It makes me wonder how many other opponents providing the other side of the story were also cut.

    There is no doubt that some dams are fit for removal as they are useless and antiquated. But this film calls out the Snake River dams as such and they are far, far from it. The Pacific NW relies heavily on these dams for peak load and power emergencies. So in times when we have extreme hot or extreme cold temperatures, the Snake River dams help to meet that extra load we need when heating and cooling our homes and offices. If those dams were removed, there would be no way to replace that energy with renewables that are reliable like hydropower is. And believe me, if the public was unable to cool or heat their homes in such events, they would be asking for those dams to be put back up! The makers of this movie are on the lunatic fringe, there is no doubt about it. To compare the Elwha or Condit dam removals to the Snake River dams is asinine and, simply put, apples and oranges.

    • Brian Clark Howard
      April 2, 5:09 pm

      Thanks for reading. Interesting on the opponent side, do you know who it was?

      My viewing of the film did not suggest a position that was that black and white when it came to a number of dams, especially the big dams like Grand Coulee. I thought it was more nuanced, and I thought the overall message was best provided by the words of David Montgomery, who said we will likely need to keep a number of dams for quite a while to come.