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‘DamNation’ documentary details growing movement to free American rivers

Dennis King Published: April 23, 2014
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From the 1950s through the ‘70s, some 30,000 dams were built on American waterways, blocking huge portions of navigable rivers across the country. Although the boom in dam construction was widely viewed as progress – providing flood control and water for irrigation, encouraging recreational opportunities, generating hydropower, etc. – a new movement is taking hold around the U.S. to push for removal of obsolete dams.

That’s the subject of a new documentary, “DamNation,” which has rallied conservationists, sportsmen and environmental activists and stirred up a spirited debate over the long-term wisdom of trying to engineer nature to serve man’s needs. The film, which premiered in February at the SXSW Film Festival, was recently named winner of the Documentary Award for Environmental Advocacy at the 2014 Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C.

“DamNation” was produced by the eco-friendly equipment and clothing company Patagonia and co-directed by Ben Knight and Travis Rummel, makers of “Red Gold,” an influential 2008 documentary on dangerous mining practices in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region. The new film takes a provocative look at recent efforts in the lower 48 states to remove old and outdated dams and restore rivers to their natural flows.

“Dams represented a pivotal part of U.S. development,” Knight says in the film, “but like many things we took it too far.”

For example, due to dam construction, the Snake and Columbia Rivers in the Northwest retain only eight percent of their original salmon runs, the film tells us. In 1992 eight dams blocked passage to Idaho’s Redfish Lake (once a fertile spawning ground for sockeye salmon) and that year only one salmon made it past those obstacles to spawn. In search of an engineering solution, man has attempted to replace naturally spawning salmon with hatchery-raised fish, with very poor results.

The harm caused by dams in blocking spawning runs of salmon and other fish, as well as in preventing flows of sediments that nourish rivers and estuaries, is now better understood by scientists. And so a growing number of scientists, activists and even politicians (including former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who is featured in the film) have joined the movement.

“DamNation” profiles many of those advocates, delves into the science, economics and history of dams and focuses on some recent successful efforts at removing outdated dams in Maine, Washington and other states and restoring rivers to their natural flows.

Certainly, the dam-busting movement is not without controversy or opposition (although no opponents agreed to speak on camera for the film). But as a portrait of the problem and the logic of rethinking America’s treatment of rivers, the film is a worthy, thought-provoking invitation to the debate.

As author and outdoorsman David James Duncan observes of our choking system of dams in this country, “Water is the same as the blood in our bodies; stagnation is death.”

- Dennis King