“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narrated, edited, and co-directed the film, which takes a provocative look at the recent movement to remove old and outdated dams, to restore natural river systems.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 HVAC, Green Lighting, Build Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.