They are the arteries and veins of this vast, complex system of life on Earth. Fed by glaciers, rain, snow and gravity, they provide pathways for life to flourish on land, carrying nutrients from the mountains, down through the plains and the deserts to the sea.
Rivers. All along their snaking lengths life flourishes – plants of all shapes and sizes grow, animals gather to drink, while fish spawn at their headwaters. Human beings have been building our civilizations along side running rivers since we abandoned life as nomads.
For millennia we have been damming our rivers in an effort to tame their sometimes-wild nature and create more stable sources of food and water. We are not the only animal species known to do this. But we are the only species with the technical capability to garrote a river system entirely. Unlike beaver dams (which actually help ecosystems flourish) many of our dams act like tourniquets: blocking sediment flow, starving the area downstream, flooding the area upstream, and physically blocking the natural migration of fish species – all at the hands of fat-cat energy companies and fish hatcheries making BIG money off of them.
Of course, we need dams – which is the truly wicked aspect of our relationship with them. Cities and entire western states might collapse into thirsty anarchy if we were to demolish all our dams and abandon the practice forever. Dams are necessary at this point in human history; we simply have too many people. But it is important to understand the consequences of dam construction on our environment, so we do not overuse them…
There are 75,000 dams in the US alone; of those, over 25,000 present significant safety hazards to people or the environment, and only 1,750 generate hydroelectricity. So why are there so many?
In 1902 the National Reclamation Act federally funded irrigation projects to make living in harsh desert states easier. They wanted to”reclaim the arid lands for human use.” The law sparked an explosion of dam construction across the Western United States at a time when we understood very little about their environmental effects, and put little value on the cultural and natural importance of the West. So we built. Engineers from all over the country rallied and began damming up rivers like beavers on speed, furiously building power plants and wreaking havoc on the environment for centuries to come.
Some of the most affected victims of this were the fish. For millions of years steelheads, sockeyes, rainbows, and all other manner of fish annually voyage upstream to find the place of their birth, where they lay their eggs and propagate their species. Dams prohibit this. They present an impassable barrier, and are often detrimental to the fish populations. Some dams provide pathways, conveyor belts, or even fish cannons to get them from one side of the dam to the other – but only a small percentage of the migrating fish will ever locate and successfully employ these passage methods. In Washington and Alaska salmon-runs that once easily produced 400,000 fish per year, before dams went up, only managed 3,000 – 5,000 thousand after dam construction.
And then, it gets worse. Because many Native American tribes consider fish or rivers sacred, and the migrations like the annual salmon run at Celilo Falls are regarded as spiritual holidays. It was in 1956 when the US Government committed an act of cultural genocide against the natives of Celilo Falls. This tribal fishing ground was a sacred place of commerce, fishing, and worship. It was the oldest continually inhabited community in North America – until 1957 when the construction of the Dalles Dam submerged the sacred falls forever. The native population was traumatized by the loss of Celilo Falls; they were culturally devastated beyond repair. And this is only one example of something that happened to Native Americans across the west as America’s dam obsession raged through the middle of the 20th century.
One of the greatest, most celebrated dams built during that era of river choking madness was the infamous Glen Canyon Dam. Finished in 1966, this dam submerged thousands of miles of beautiful, untouched desert wilderness; uncounted archeological sites were sunk. Habitats, and wildlife alike were drowned to create a huge lake in one of the hottest, driest, most parched places on earth. Between surface evaporation and the highly porous sandstone basin it sits in, Lake Powell wastes a full 8% of the Colorado River’s flow annually. And the Glen Canyon Dam itself traps 45-million tons of sediment every year, starving the Grand Canyon’s eco-system downstream. It is a huge point of contention amongst the environmental community – one particularly enthusiastic environmentalist by the name of Ed Abbey once commented on the drowning of Glen Canyon under Lake Powell:
“The politicians of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado, in cahoots with the land developers, city developers, industrial developers of the Southwest, stole this treasure from us in order to pursue and promote their crackpot ideology of Growth, Profit, and Power—growth for the sake of power, power for the sake of growth. We can see now that Glen Canyon Dam was merely a step toward the urbanizing, industrializing, and—probably—militarizing of the American West. But Glen Canyon Dam remains particularly painful and obnoxious—not only as a symbol, but as an ongoing exemplification of what greed and stupidity can do to the American land.” -Edward Abbey, Remarks, Glen Canyon Dam, Spring Equinox, 1981
Unfortunately, Glen Canyon Dam has become essential to America. Generating huge amounts of power, storing vital water and providing recreation on a massive scale; its removal would shake the American West. But in Washington, on the Elwha River, two big hydroelectric dams, which had been built in the last century but generated no power whatsoever, were kept around for decades – despite public opposition. There are dams across the West like this. Hundreds of giant cement river plugs that do no good, and serve no purpose, but remain nevertheless.
Activist organizations have had significant success in recent years, getting the government to remove unnecessary dams. The Elwha river dams mentioned above were demolished in 2011 and 2014. And in 2015, sixty-two dams were removed to restore rivers in the US. It is good progress in refining our national irrigation system, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Perhaps someday America will perfect its relationship with its river systems, balancing necessary power production and water storage with environmental conservation and sustainability. But it may be a very long way off. Until then, we’ll just have to get out and enjoy the rivers and natural splendor that flourishes along their banks where we can.
Sources: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/edward-abbey-remarks-glen-canyon-dam-spring-equinox-1981, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/08/opinion/tear-down-deadbeat-dams.html, http://www.americanrivers.org/initiatives/dams/dam-removals-map/, http://damnationfilm.com/, http://www.treesearch.fs.fed.us/pubs/49344