In the two decades Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has been working on dam-removal projects in the United States, he has come to recognize a pattern. Dam-decommissioning efforts often begin with a small grassroots outfit. The advocates, usually just a handful of people, face tremendous odds — the critics are manifold and, most of the time, powerful. The bureaucratic hurdles are huge, and the process is time-consuming and incredibly costly.
If the effort does manage to get traction, gather momentum and comes to fruition, it’s only through years of hard work and tenacity.
But then the dam comes down and the river begins to almost instantaneously heal, Chouinard, below, said. “And then there’s not one person who says, ‘Gee, that was a mistake.’ ”
Chouinard, along with his son-in-law, fisherman and biologist Matt Stoecker, want to speed up this process, get the gears cranking on a growing movement to decommission dams in America. The best way to do that, they figure, is through public support. And the public will only support it if they understand the incredibly complicated issue.
That’s the idea behind DamNation, a feature documentary produced by Patagonia and Stoecker Ecological in conjunction with the Colorado-based filmmaking team Felt Soul Media.
The film aims to illustrate success stories of recent dam-removal projects, delve into dams that are currently in the center of removal fights, and shine a light on dams that are eyed for future dismantling. It will paint the history of dam building in America and chronicle the transition of dam-busters from the radical monkey-wrenchers of yore to today’s tie-wearing coalition-builders, and will focus on some of the pivotal figures on either side of the dam issue.
Shooting began last summer, with filmmakers Ben Knight, Travis Rummel, and Stoecker gathering footage from Maine to California and interviewing everyone from biologists to farmers to dam employees.
And while Chouinard isn’t shy about his position on dams, the film sets out to lay the whole mosaic of the complicated issue, from the farmers who rely on dams for irrigation to the Native Americans who have watched salmon stocks dwindle to legislators who view dam opponents as environmental extremists.
“Our goal is to let the audience make up their own minds by giving them all sides of the issue,” Rummel said. “I don’t think it’s a black and white issue where it’s take out every dam.”
Whether they are humming with hydro-electric generation, diverting water for fields, or have been deactivated and are standing idle, the dams in the United States — there are tens of thousands of them — have dramatically impacted the rivers upon which they were built. And many have outlasted their purpose, says Chouinard.
“I think the public is unaware of a lot of these things,” he said. “I don’t think they realize that there’s a lifespan for these things.”
Many Americans pass by dams — by now a well-established part of the country’s landscape — without a second thought. When Chouinard sees dams, however, he sees broken waterways, an antiquated way of thinking, and energy that is far from green. But he also sees the potential to mend the damage with a simple action: taking down the dam.
“I’m a fisherman and I want to see fish come back to these rivers,” Chouinard said. “I want to establish that when you put in a dam or when you do an open pit mine or scrape down a mountain, that you have to restore it. There’s a public trust there and you have to restore it.”
Stoecker, who removed his first dam 10 years ago, noted that while dam-busting used to be the realm of rogues who operated outside of the law, it’s transformed into a solution that is being considered by not just by environmentalists, but even by the dam owners themselves. Because while there was a compelling reason to build many dams at the time they were constructed — be it to power factories or provide water to regions that didn’t have it — “now we’ve got less harmful alternatives. There’s been a total shift,” Stoecker says.
A good example of this can be found on the Elwha River in Washington, where a coalition of tribes, environmental groups, and government officials worked together to undertake the largest dam removal in United States history, combining the takedown of both the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwha River.
“There are wild steelhead and salmon returning to the river above the former Elwha Dam site before the project’s even done,” Stoecker said. “The benefits are instant.”
Chouinard argues that when you look at the big picture, at the impacts of a dam versus the benefits it yields, the answer is clear.
“When you add up the total cost and the total loss, it doesn’t make sense in a lot of cases,” he said.
Chouinard hopes the film, which is in the editing stage, opens people’s eyes.
“I just hope it gets around to a lot of people and changes their way of thinking about dams,” he said “I’d like to see a few more dams come down in my lifetime.”
Learn about DamNation the film at damnationfilm.com.
Katie Klingsporn is a writer and editor of the Telluride Daily Planet in Telluride, Colorado.