Thinking broadly about dams in the West


It’s been a bad press week for dams.  Last Saturday the Lake Delhi dam gave way, and the previous Tuesday the Tempe Town Lake dam literally exploded.  The former disaster involved heavy rains swamping a 1920s-era dam on the Maquoketa River, while the latter resulted from a giant rubber bladder popping on the Salt River.  In Iowa, upstream residents  mourned the loss of a bucolic landscape as downstream residents mucked out mud.  In Arizona, officials vowed to refill a recreational reservoir even as they combed downstream banks for flood victims--likely transients who often camp in the normally dry river bed.

These incidents remind us of several salient facts about dams, people, and nature.  First, and especially in the American West, we fixate on a few large dams, yet most of us are more intimately entwined with the sort of structures that failed last week.  These small dams are ubiquitous and unconscious backdrops of daily life.  We rarely notice the irrigation gates along the roads of the San Joaquin, Snake, Uncompagre, and Yakima Valleys.  Nor do we often consider those dikes in central California or the lower Colorado River, or the storage lakes that some Westerners use for play and that many more rely on for domestic usage.  Until, of course, they fail, as has happened repeatedly since long before the St. Francis Dam gave way in 1928.

Second, humans have no single relationship to dams because dams provide so many different services, ranging from irrigation to flood control, navigation, play, and even, tragically, living space.  The Rogue River’s Gold Ray Dam, for example, has been the bane of lower river salmon fishers since 1904, yet upriver residents once loved how the dam enabled them to easily, if illegally, harvest adult salmon trapped below the dam’s broken fish ladder.  Similarly, the mostly paved Los Angeles River is simultaneously a backdrop for post-apocalyptic movies, home to destitute Angelenos, and, all outward appearances aside, crucial habitat for southern California wildlife.

Thus dams reveal a complex interplay of environmental and human history, a fact westerners were also reminded of this last week.  Over the last two years there has been a Herculean effort to help juvenile salmon migrate past Round Butte Dam, which had blocked fish passage on Oregon’s Deschutes River since 1964.  Fifteen months ago, a nearly completed $100 million fish passage tower collapsed.  The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Portland General Electric, and fishery agencies quickly rebuilt the sophisticated plumbing system, and last month it seemed to succeed in passing fish downstream.  By last Friday, however, victory was less certain.  The structure that flushes juvenile chinook salmon out of Lake Billy Chinook’s chaotic, swirling backwaters also turns out to raise downstream temperatures so much that the warm waters might kill some adult steelhead returning to spawn.

The Pelton Butte Round Fish Passage System on the Deschutes River. Click on image for larger view. Photo courtesy Steve Corson, Corporate Communications, Portland General Electric

Yet nothing is obvious.  The fish passage structure is a good example of a technology that simultaneously helps, harms, and divides, and there is no consensus about whether it is good, bad, natural, or novel.  Nobody challenges the cause of rising temperatures.  Rather, the contest is over whether changes are historically novel or a return to a more natural regime before the dam cooled downstream waters.  Even salmon need unpacking.  The chinooks transplanted upstream seem at first unnatural, and downstream steelheads wild victims, but biology here has a human history.  Deschutes summer steelhead run is mostly hatchery bred with a stunningly high percentage of strays from other streams in the Columbia River basin, and Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife would like to stop these fish from breeding with local stocks.  Thus some argue that killing steelheads serves nature.  The Deschutes’ fall chinook run is, by contrast, a completely wild population that is simply getting a helping, if expensive, hand in recolonizing their well-documented historical range.  In both cases, though, nature cannot be disentangled from culture.

Of course, none of this is new or exclusive to the American West.  Mill and irrigation dams were an integral part of the social and ecological rearrangement of England and Europe during the enclosure movement, and the story is still replaying itself around the world from the Ainu of Hokaido Island to the Cree in James Bay.  Just last week the Enawene Nawe protested a dam that inundated their burial site in the Brazillian state of Mato Grosso.  Meanwhile, the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh protested neighboring Maharashtra’s plans to dam the Godavari River, and the Three Gorges Dam finally protected the lower Yangtze River basin from devastating floods.  Unfortunately, over 700 upriver residents died and hundreds of thousands were displaced during this year’s monsoon season.

Dams in the American West are thus part of a global and deeply historical conversation about technology, humans and nature, one that is exceedingly difficult to draw lines between what is natural and what is not, what is good and what is bad, and it involves a lot more than a few mega-dams.

 Joseph Taylor teaches in the history and geography departments at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver. He is the author of Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis, which won the American Society of Environmental History’s best book award. His forthcoming book, Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk, will be released in October.  He lives in Oregon.