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Dammed If We Don’t

Yvon Chouinard
Mountain 2012

Environmentalist David Brower was once asked, “Why are you conservationists always against things?” He replied, “If you are against something, you are always for something. If you are against a dam, you are for a river.”

I’m also a lover of wild rivers. That’s why our company has been involved in trying to take out obsolete and damaging dams since 1993. We’ve had some success helping take down the Edwards Dam on Maine’s Kennebec River in 1999, and the Savage Rapids Dam on Oregon’s Rogue River in 2009. As I write this, three large dams are slated to come down on Washington’s Elwha and White Salmon Rivers. The United States has more than 82,000 dams in its inventory and researchers estimate there may be at least two million dams of various sizes. So far, at least 836 dams have come down, but 26,000 “hazardous” dams (according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) remain. Many of these dams were built by local irrigation districts, private power companies and local, state and federal governments. When they become obsolete safety hazards, like mines, the owners just walk away and leave the cleanup and restoration to the taxpayers.

When I was 18, I used to go down to the Sea of Cortez to spearfish. Within 15 or 20 minutes, I would spot a 30- to 40-pound grouper. It was like a fishbowl. And now, many of the bottom fish are gone, the shrimp are almost gone, and fishermen are left to eke out a living fishing for low-value skate wings in the winter. This is largely due to overfishing and destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling, but it’s also because the mighty Colorado River no longer flows to the Gulf of California. Fewer nutrients support the biota of the gulf because the river and its tributaries are impoverished by more than 100 dams. The Mediterranean is on its way to becoming a dead sea, with the Aswan Dam on the Nile being the last indignity. It’s projected that there won’t be a single undammed river reaching the sea in China by 2025, only thirteen years from now.

The estuaries and coastal lagoons at the mouths of our planet’s rivers are often referred to as the ‘nurseries’ of our world’s fisheries, and many ocean fish need brackish or fresh water to spawn and rear. Four crucial dams to take out if we wish to restore wild Pacific salmon are on the lower Snake River – a tributary to the Columbia River and one of our planet’s mightiest salmon producers. Every fisheries biologist not in the pocket of the Bonneville Power Administration agrees that the dams must come down. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and state and local governments in the area lack backbone and refuse to act on good science. The U.S. taxpayer continues to bleed billions of dollars on a failed policy of hatcheries and barging salmon around dams, when President Obama should add basic economics to overwhelming scientific fact and direct federal agencies to remove the lower Snake River dams.

The best chance of restoring wild Atlantic salmon to the United States is taking out two of the three dams (and breaching the third) on the Penobscot River in Maine (scheduled for 2012). The best chance of restoring wild Atlantic salmon in France is to remove the Poutès Dam, built in 1941 on the upper Allier River, the main tributary of the Loire River. (The French government announced the removal of the Poutès Dam as this catalog went to press.)

But if I chose one dam to fall, for me, it is the Matilija Dam, just up the road from Patagonia headquarters, near Ojai, California. In 2000, I watched then U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt stand on the top of the dam and swear it was going to come down. It’s still there.

It was built in 1948 by a few local irrigators and was almost silted up after only 18 years. The dam is an impassable barrier to endangered sea-run steelhead trout migrating home to the Ventura River and prevents much needed sand from nourishing the coastline of Ventura County and beyond. One reason it hasn’t come down is a lack of sound planning and leadership on the part of local politicians, water districts and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The question of how to take down the dam was given to some local grammar school children, and one little girl raised her hand and asked, “Why don’t they take a little bitty bite out of the dam every year?” If we had started doing that back in 2000, the Matilija Dam would be gone by now and steelhead would be spawning in Matilija Creek.

According to Bruce Babbitt, we’ve been building at least one dam a day since the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. Building dams is old technology that doesn’t fit with 21st century innovation, yet dams are still going up. Brazil is building the Belo Monte Dam, the third largest in the world, that will inundate a large part of the Xingu River basin and force tens of thousands of local people from their land. Argentina is going to dam the Santa Cruz River. The five proposed dams in Patagonia, Chile, would require the longest transmission line in the world to go through most of their national parks. If those dams and transmission lines are built, every other Chilean river to the north can be dammed and plugged into those transmission lines.

When are we going to stop? After we dam every single river in the world?

We are now on the cusp of a multitude of good options for clean energy, like solar, wind, tidal power, wave power, geothermal and energy efficiency. Rather than storing water in on-stream reservoirs, water is best stored in underground aquifers, off-stream reservoirs and restored floodplain basins that also provide flood protection and water quality benefits. Water conservation and efficiency measures alone eliminate the need for new storage dams, and existing railroads are a viable alternative to shipping produce on barges. I wonder why we are so impatient to destroy our rivers with this outdated technology and why we have to wait so long to tear down these obsolete behemoths.

About the Author
Yvon Chouinard is founder and owner of Patagonia, Inc. He recommends two books for further reading: Salmon Without Rivers by James Lichatowich and Recovering a Lost River by Steven Hawley.