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A history of dams and dam removals

Forum Dams drove agricultural, industrial, and urban development in the West, but, by altering natural flow patterns and trapping sediment, created complex problems for migratory fish and downstream ecosystems. Since the late 1800s, 76,000 dams over six feet tall have been constructed in the contiguous U. We see a history of dams and dam removals many defunct dams as a crucial part of watershed restoration, and promote water conservation and greywater reuse as important steps in building autonomous, ecologically sustainable water systems.

When the Manifestly Destined looked out over the land, you saw deficiency: Pre-existing human relationships to the land honed over millennia of necessity, of error, of success was invisible to the various explorers eyes. In the arid West, water which had meant life became liquid wealth. Dams became the engines of commerce.

Once exploding populations sucked groundwater dry, dam water turned worthless desert land into something that could be speculated on, subdivided, and sold as a small slice of paradise. The Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers bigger and bigger dams, across ever-deepening canyons.

This dam-building frenzy led to the rise of the supreme monuments, the mega-dams. Throughout the West they impounded millions of acre-feet of water and generated hydroelectricity too cheap to meter. The long arm of global trade brings the products of forests, rivers, factories, and farms in faraway countries to supermarkets and shopping malls.

Irrigation led to servitude, not liberation; to cartels, not small-scale democracies; and the centralized water bureaucracy was a servant of the hydro-imperialists, not an honest broker of the public interest. This worldview metastasized like a cancer from Bureau of Reclamation engineers to the rest of the world, always with the same bottom line: Third World nations buying the hydro-power rap must hock their futures to the merciless cadre of global bankers, submitting to the neoliberal structure of the IMF and World Bank.

Water and power must be privatized, jacking up the price for basic necessities. Why remove many dams? During the height of the age of dams, dam opponents had little political power. As time passed, how- ever, resistance to dams rose. Tribes whose fishing rights were threatened, displaced communities, conservationists who appreciated the aesthetic beauty of wild areas, commercial fishermen, and even river rafters organized campaigns that began to convince the public of the benefits of wild rivers.

After long battles in the courtrooms and along the rivers, some dam projects were blocked by court injunctions and some impounded water was released. But for those who depended on free flowing rivers, it was too little, too late.

Greywater Action

Today, many politicians—and even some environmentalists—argue that dam removal is impractical and economically unfeasible. The first were old mining dams in mountainous areas, which had long ceased to function.

There was little controversy over the removal of these dams, because they provided neither hydroelectricity nor irrigation water. But when salmon-destroying dams still generate a profit, the pitched battles for dam removal grow fierce. The 1999 breaching of Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine was a milestone in the dam removal struggle. Since then about forty large dams have been removed.

Fish populations usually recover quickly. Dam removal can be a tricky and expensive process. Trainloads of sediment—often laced with heavy metals—must sometimes be removed from behind the dam and disposed of somewhere else.

  • Emily Eidam has spent the last six years earning her PhD in oceanography from the University of Washington by tracking mud and sand released from the Elwha;
  • In one such story , dams in Maine have almost completely cut off all routes for fish to leave the ocean and travel upstream to spawn in freshwater lakes and streams, leading to the near-collapse of many fish populations.

Currently, lost hydroelectricity and irrigation water are replaced by expanding another dam or fossil fuel power plant. In some cases these trade-offs are worth the restoration of salmon runs.

What can I do to prevent this in the future?

In others, they merely reinforce the worldview that considers some landscapes expendable. This restoration is possible, they say, because the Calaveras Dam could be raised by two hundred feet to provide extra water storage. However, raising Calaveras will submerge hundreds of acres of oak forest—wild land that is much more accessible to millions of city-dwellers than Hetch Hetchy. Is our only choice between the lesser of two dams?

Dam removal

Dam builders view rivers as conduits for water and the consolidation of power, though their stated intentions are to generate electricity, irrigate crops, and control floods. In a healthy river, there is no linear progression from point A to point B. Nutrients get bound up in bogs.

Water disappears into marshes, evaporates into the sky, and is sucked up by plants. Instead of one mega-dam to regulate its flow, a wild river has innumerable structures and creatures moving nutrients around, transporting water through its cycle, holding back floods.

This Will Be the Biggest Dam-Removal Project in History

We become our choices. The lights would go out in almost every major U. Dam removal is very difficult, and life after dams will be uncharted territory. None of that should stop us from fighting as hard as we can to make dams relics of the past, while some salmon, fertile soils, and floodplain wetlands still remain. There is no legitimate scientific or economic argument for leaving most dams in place, and many, many reasons—particular to each dam and river—for these archaic structures to be taken out.

Dam builders, industrialists, agribusiness corporations, and politicians would no doubt make different choices than you and I, common dwellers in our watersheds.

  1. Alongside other students, I was visiting this picturesque scene to see, hear, and touch what we think of as a typical dam — but later, we would learn of the danger looming beneath the calm surface.
  2. Additionally, fish ladder s can be added to dams to increase the connectivity of a river and allow fish to reach their spawning grounds. Dams are a powerful illustration of how we harness nature's power.
  3. None of that should stop us from fighting as hard as we can to make dams relics of the past, while some salmon, fertile soils, and floodplain wetlands still remain. New notches are cut in so the water drains out of the reservoir at a consistent flow.
  4. Life in the age of dams depends on interlocking systems for producing food, delivering water, and generating power.
  5. Many dams in the western United States were built for agricultural water diversion in the arid country, with hydroelectric power generation being a very significant side benefit. In this approach, a large tunnel is dug through the base of the dam and then connected to the reservoir.

Here, in the heart of the mega-dam empire, we have the opportunity to struggle alongside the salmon, the tribes, and people around the world to bring down dams and to build societies where they are no longer necessary.

Life in the age of dams depends on interlocking systems for producing food, delivering water, and generating power. There are ways to reform theses systems so that they are less destructive. We can live with less electricity, and generate it from the sun, wind, and tides.

  1. Their average expected lifetime is just 56 years.
  2. The Hoover Dam stores enough water to sustainably support two million acres of surrounding land and generates enough hydropower to serve 1. Many studies support the Elwha dam removals to restore salmon runs and estuarine habitat, and an extensive public process has built consensus around dam removal.
  3. Three years later, and over three decades after the original restoration act set the removal process in motion, the last piece of removable concrete was hauled away from the Elwha River.

We can support small farmers who use water wisely and restore wetlands and riparian corridors on their lands. We can consume fewer products, so that dams will not be built on distant rivers to make the disposable trifles that fill our stores.

We can clean up our groundwater, recharge our aquifers, and demand an end to the production of toxic waste. All of these actions require changes in personal habits and popular action.

  • To venture into the park and get a good look at the dam sites, you have to strap on some hiking boots and prepare for the long haul;
  • Lengthy conflicts often transpired in instances where removals occurred, but these were successfully arbitrated by paying attention to local historical-geographical conditions conducive to removal and by brokering effective compromises between dam owners and the various local actors and stakeholders involved in the removal process;
  • Emily Eidam has spent the last six years earning her PhD in oceanography from the University of Washington by tracking mud and sand released from the Elwha;
  • The entire body of water will drain through this tunnel in a matter of minutes or hours and the massive release of water and sediment can cause severe flooding and erosion along the river downstream for miles;
  • Opponents point to stories of catastrophe;
  • Sediment can be tested before it is released to determine if it will be harmful to the landscape below the dam.

The frontlines of the water wars are not just in India, Brazil, or Bolivia: Those actions are only a beginning. Life after dams will require abandoning the destructive infrastructure of the present era and replacing it, watershed by watershed, with systems that do not destroy the world in order to sustain human society.

Water is essential to life. By choice, or by catastrophe, we will one day live with less. The choice is mine, yours, ours.

The Social, Historical, and Institutional Contingencies of Dam Removal.

Strategies for an undammed world Oppose new dam construction Reduce consumption of goods and food produced with dams abroad Support dam removal as part of watershed restoration plans, and as mitigation for any new dam construction Demand removal of dams that block salmon and other fish passage in cases where hatcheries, fish ladders, or other mitigation strategies have not supported healthy fish runs.

Support scientific research into dam removal effects on rivers, and incorporate findings into new dam removals.

One more step

Create and participate in participatory decision-making processes around dam removal and river restoration decision-making. Two dams block salmon passage and sediment transport on the Elwha.

The Biggest Dam-Removal Project in History

Both will be removed within the next few years. Many studies support the Elwha dam removals to restore salmon runs and estuarine habitat, and an extensive public process has built consensus around dam removal. The river washed accumulated sediment downstream more quickly than anticipated, Coho salmon swam past the dam the day after it was breached, and spawning habitat has greatly improved.

  • Using a comparative case study approach, we examine the environmental conflict around efforts to remove six dams in New England;
  • Edited by Lauren Fuge and Tessa Evans.

See time lapse of the dam removal hereand the preliminary site assessment in EOS. In 1983, 120 miles of the upper Clark Fork basin were designated as a Superfund site. Behind the levee, bulldozers scrape toxic muck out of rectangular pits, and freight cars haul it 150 miles upstream to dump. Above the diversion, the river splits and reconverges in a tangle of silver threads around sandbars littered with toppled birches and alders.

High flows this year [2008] ate away huge swaths of bank and deposited copper and arsenic-contaminated sediments downstream.