Early Dam-Building Philosophy

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, America ascribed to an aggressive dam-building philosophy. Beginning in the early 19th century, when they were built mostly to power the mills of the Industrial Revolution, dams were considered symbols of power, innovation, and technical progress. The first levee was built on the Mississippi River in 1716. Since then, more than 75,000 dams have been built on American rivers. For the most part, ignorance and indifference to the adverse environmental impacts has accompanied their construction. Hydroelectric power soon became a profitable venture, and increasingly larger dams were built during the height of the dam-building era, notably Hoover Dam on the Colorado River (1936), Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River (1938), and Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River (1942).

Shifting Social Attitudes

Gc dam above2a

In the last 30-40 years, social attitudes have shifted, becoming more conservation-minded. (see History of Environmental Movement) As citizens became more aware of and concerned for the environment, they began to take action. As an example, Sierra Club membership nearly quadrupled from 1965 – 1970 (from 33,000 to 114,000 members). This new-found activism was, in large part, sparked by the protests of several major dam projects.

In the early 1950s, the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) legislation outlined plans to build dams at, among other places, Echo Park and Split Mountain, in Dinosaur National Monument. For six years, the Sierra Club and other organizations successfully worked to defeat this proposal, vying for the integrity of the National Park System. Ultimately, the conservationists defeated the Echo Park Dams and that victory is viewed as the birth of the modern environmental movement in the United States.

Unfortunately, as a condition for scratching water development plans at Echo Park within the CRSP, the Sierra Club agreed to allow the rest of the CRSP projects to be approved without protest, including Glen Canyon Dam. Soon after the Act was passed, the realization was made by conservationists that a mistake had been made in allowing the Bureau of Reclamation to begin construction of Glen Canyon Dam. Visitation to the doomed canyons greatly increased after CRSP was passed. David Brower and the Sierra Club attempted to thwart its construction, but it was too late. Efforts to stop its construction were unsuccessful, and in 1963 Glen Canyon Dam was completed on the Colorado River above Lee’s Ferry, inundating one of the most beautiful places on earth by the waters of the Colorado River. David Brower, the Sierra Club’s executive director at that time, called Glen Canyon Dam “America’s most regretted environmental mistake.”

Shortly after the passage of CRSP, the Bureau of Reclamation announced plans for two massive dams in the Grand Canyon. David Brower and the Sierra Club mounted a huge national campaign against the Grand Canyon Dams which were ultimately defeated. One of the most memorable moments of this campaign was when, David Brower, a champion of the early environmental movement, took out full-page ads in the New York Times that asked, “Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?”

Facets of the Modern River Restoration Movement

Current environmental attitudes have lead to a growing river restoration movement. American Rivers is a major catalyst of the movement http://www.amrivers.org. The movement’s major areas of attention include:

  • Floodplain Protection: Floodplains act as sponges to store water, filter sediment, and reduce the velocity of rivers during high-water periods. Periodic flooding is crucial to the rejuvenation of riparian habitats. This protection is key to the survival of many rivers, including, for example, the Greater Yellowstone rivers, where construction is a major threat.
  • Hydropower Dam Relicensing: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has jurisdiction over many hydropower dams, and must license them to dam their rivers for hydropower generation. Licenses typically last 30-50 years. During the relicensing procedure, interested members of the public can provide input into the Environmental Assessment (EA). This is currently underway with the Santee-Cooper Hydroelectric Project. Bureau of Reclamation dams are, however, not subject to FERC relicensing.
  • Water Quantity: Inadequate flow in rivers is caused by over-allocation, sprawl, and agriculture. Natural flow must preserve resources and values, which include fish as well as recreation. American Rivers and the Washington Environmental Council are working together to address this issue on the rivers of the Pacific Northwest.
  • Dam Removal: Actual dam removal has long been viewed as a radical, fringe facet of the river restoration movement. The paradigm has shifted over the last decade. Dams were considered to be built as environmentally friendly as possible, and any undesirable fringe effects to the environment were thought to be worth it, because of the net gain in benefits to society. In response to an interview with David Brower in 1997, the Bureau of Reclamation said, “As suggested by Mr. Brower, draining Lake Powell, ‘repairing’ Glen Canyon Dam, and refilling the reservoir some 200 years from now simply makes no sense since there is nothing wrong with the dam in the first place.” This is simply not true and modern scientific evidence is continually exposing all types of complex and serious negative impacts of damming free-flowing rivers.

As scientists continues to study dams, various issues associated with dams are becoming better understood. For example, it is now known that sedimentation buildup is a very real problem for all dams: Because rivers transport sediment, any dams which stop the flow of water also stop all sediment, thus rendering them temporary. Hundreds of small dams have filled with sediment and are being considered for decommissioning.The Matilija dam on the Ventura River, which is 200 feet high, has filled with sediment, and it has become necessary to remove it to arrest further destruction to the river corridor and ecosystem downstream. As another example of negative impacts, the water in the Columbia River frequently exceeds the maximum tolerable temperature as a result of dams, as outlined in this EPA study:http://yosemite.epa.gov/R10/WATER.NSF/0/780e02b8962f0b5e88256aed0058d4a1?

Technology has developed alternatives to dams, such as updated irrigation methods, more efficient flood control, and alternative sources of power. As wind, solar, and cleaner-burning fuel power become more accessible, power production, becomes less of an issue for justifying dam construction.

Cartoon in the 1954 LA Times

All dams are temporary

It’s not a question of if a dam will need to be removed; it’s only a question of when. Some dams will outlive expectations; but some, such as the Matilija and Ringe, will degenerate much more quickly than expected, and will become major safety hazards. Even Glen Canyon Dam, which is more than 500 feet tall, is filling rapidly with sediment and has a useful lifespan of around 100 more years because of the rapid rate of sediment builup behind the dam.

Dam removal is gaining increasing popularity with the public. Over 460 dams have been removed in the past 40 years. At the heart of the River Restoration Movement is Glen Canyon Dam and the movement to restore a healthy Colorado River. The loss of Glen Canyon was a turning point in the birth of the modern Environmental Movement and has been mourned since the dam’s construction. As the symbolic heart of the movement today, the movement to restore Glen Canyon represents our society’s realization of the value of free-flowing rivers and complex ecosystems that depend upon them. Glen Canyon, which was hailed by many as one of the most beautiful places on earth, was lost to the thoughtless era of dam building. Subsequent scientific evidence has shown that the destruction it has caused was entirely unnecessary. As the most destructive and least useful dam in the world, Glen Canyon Dam will ultimately be decommissioned in our generation for a variety of reasons, including health and safety issues, the jeopardy it poses to the water supply of millions, as well as the environmental impacts to the side-canyons of the Glen and the downstream Grand Canyon Environment.

Shifting Governmental Attitudes

Governmental policy, shortly after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, began focusing on environmental protection. Some key events which have led to the increasing momentum of the River Restoration Movement include:

  • 1969: The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA): http://laws.fws.gov/lawsdigest/natlep.html The purposes of this act are “to declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality.”
  • 1970: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established: http://www.epa.gov/ The EPA’s mission is to “protect human health and to safeguard the natural environment — air, water, and land — upon which life depends.”
  • 1972: Federal Water Pollution Control Act: http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/lcwa.html Public concern over the pollution of waterways led to the creation of this act, which regulates discharges of pollutants in American waters.
  • 1973: Endangered Species Act: http://www.epa.gov/region5/defs/html/esa.htm This act would provide momentum to the environmental movement.
  • 1976: Failure of the Teton Dam: http://www.geol.ucsb.edu/faculty/sylvester/Teton%20Dam/FrameSet.htmThis dam was breached just as the reservoir was nearing its full capacity for the first time.
  • 1977: Clean Water Act: http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/lcwa.html Came about as amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.
  • 1977: President Carter’s “Hit List”: “I have stated many times that as President I will halt construction of unnecessary dams by the Corps of Engineers.” This list temporarily halted the construction of 19 water projects under the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. This led Congress to eventually passing the Water Resources Development Act of 1986.
  • 1991: The Two Forks Dam proposal on Colorado’s South Platte River was killed.
  • 1996 : Glen Canyon Institute founded with the mission of restoring a freeflowing Colorado River through Glen and Grand Canyons.
  • 1999: Edwards Dam is removed from Maine’s Kennebec River. At the event, when asked if other dams should be removed, U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt replied, “I’m quite confident it should be done, but I can’t tell you where.”
  • Present: Plans developing for the removal of hundreds of dams, including the Matilija Dam on the Ventura River. It is the largest ever slated for decommissioning.