Will our 'dam nation' free its rivers?

A new film explores a growing movement to remove dams that have outlived their usefulness.

  • Prevented from migrating any further upstream, a spawning pair of pink salmon flirt over a gravel bed a stone’s throw from the now removed Elwha Dam powerhouse in a scene from DAMNATION.

    Matt Stoecker
  • Trying to blend in with the tourists at a Glen Canyon overlook in Page, Arizona in a scene from DAMNATION.

    Travis Rummel
  • A painted crack and message on Glines Canyon Dam foreshadowed its removal over two decades later. Elwha River, Olympic National Park, Washington in a scene from DAMNATION.

    Mikal Jakubal
  • Extremely cold water trickles out of the Glen Canyon Dam into what's left of Glen Canyon, forming an unnatural stretch of trout water on the Arizona/Utah border in a scene from DAMNATION.

    Ben Knight

“Ed would have shit his pants.”

Coming from just any 94-year-old, this teary proclamation might have seemed shocking. Coming from Colorado River folk hero Katie Lee – famous for her life-long environmental activism, melodies and modeling nude in the redrock embrace of Glen Canyon before it disappeared beneath Lake Powell – it was as high a compliment any devotee of Western letters could want. Throw in the fact that the “Ed” she spoke for is none other than her friend and fellow Glen Canyon Dam opponent, the curmudgeonly literary light Edward Abbey, and you couldn’t blame filmmakers Ben Knight, Travis Rummel and Matt Stoecker, seated beside Lee on stage at the 5Point Film Festival in Carbondale, Colorado late last month, for looking a bit teary and shell-shocked themselves as they got ready to discuss the object of Lee’s effusive praise: Their first feature-length documentary, DamNation.

This, a visibly moved Lee told the audience as she clutched Knight’s hand, this will change everything.

The filmmakers and outdoor apparel giant Patagonia, which put $500,000 into the film, hope it will at least lead both policymakers and ordinary Americans to question whether dams really generate “clean” power, and add momentum to a movement to dismantle thousands that have outlived their usefulness.

DamNation | Trailer from FELT SOUL MEDIA on Vimeo.

From eastern Washington’s Grand Coulee to Utah’s Glen Canyon to the giant Snake River dams blocking salmon’s access to pristine habitat in Idaho, DamNation walks viewers through the U.S.’s dam-building boom years (we now have a staggering 75,000 taller than 3 feet), explores the structures’ toll on fisheries and indigenous people, and follows the return of salmon and boaters after the nation’s largest-ever dam removal projects on Washington’s Elwha and White Salmon rivers, starting in 2011.

Stoecker, producer and director of underwater photography, and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, the executive producer, had been pondering making a movie about dam removal for a while when they saw Eastern Rises, Knight and Rummel’s lighthearted film about fly fishing in Kamchatka, at an environmental film festival early that year. “With so many other fly fishing films, it’s just high fives and obnoxious fishermen,” Stoecker explains. But Knight and Rummel had a gift for combining gorgeous cinematography with storytelling and character development. So when Rummel walked into the room where Chouinard and Stoecker were sipping beer, they pitched their idea. “He just kind of looked at us with a blank stare.”

“We were both dumbfounded,” recalls Knight, who co-directed DamNation with Rummel. “We couldn’t imagine a bigger honor. But it seemed like there was no way we could do it. The idea of it, the scale of it was so daunting. So we said no.” And then eventually said yes.

“Literally for a year and a half it continued to feel like a bad idea,” says Knight. But as the filmmakers narrowed the list of 30 dams Chouinard and Stoecker had compiled to just a handful, and traversed the country in two tricked-out Sportsmobile vans crammed to the roof with equipment, gathering stories and footage (Knight and Rummel put 9,000 miles on the one they borrowed from a friend), the unwieldy beast of a topic began to crystallize into something more digestible.

Getting just the right footage, though, involved yet more “bad ideas.” Like hiding in a hastily-built blind to get a shot of Washington’s Condit Dam exploding after being denied permission to film the historic deconstruction. Like attempting to kayak through a series of locks on the Snake River meant to help gigantic industrial barges pass through the river’s dams, again without permission. Like painting a giant cut-on-dotted-line set of scissors and dashes on California’s Matilija Dam in the dead of night, definitely without permission (the filmmakers are mum on whether they were or weren’t directly involved).

A little light civil disobedience at California's Matilija Dam. Ben Knight.

These moments of levity form the film’s loose backbone, and along with Knight’s narration, provide the audience with an accessible, humorous path through collected archival footage and interviews with author David James Duncan, Katie Lee, tribal elders, dam operators, government employees and dam scholars that ultimately arrives at the transformation the filmmakers themselves were most affected by: Just how rapidly a river can recover after being loosed from its dams.

“I had no idea how powerful that moment would be, standing there watching and hearing those folks yelling and screaming,” Knight says of filming the first party of rafters and kayakers to run the free-flowing White Salmon.

And when the filmmakers returned to the Elwha just a year and a half after seeing salmon languishing and dying below its dams, they found chinook hurling themselves up a waterfall to reach their ancestral spawning grounds as if the concrete walls had never been. “I got goosebumps everywhere when I saw that,” Stoecker says. “Travis and I spent two days filming, and literally every time they jumped, we were pumping our fists in the air. We were so excited and happy for them.”

The White Salmon River, before and after the removal of the Condit Dam. Ben Knight.

Knight is pragmatic about the long-term impact these inspiring visions will have on audiences. “I’m not expecting anyone to go out and be an activist after seeing the movie,” he says. “But it’s exciting just to know that they’ll go home caring a little more, and the next time they see a dam, they might wonder what kind of effects it’s having on their own watershed.”

That sentiment fits well with the tone of the film, which, despite its funder and clear agenda (Patagonia is using it to push a petition to take down “deadbeat dams”), is far from a radical environmentalist screed. Rummel and Knight got their start as journalists in Telluride, Colorado, and told Patagonia from the get-go that they wanted to cover the issue from all sides. And though every pro-dam politician they sought for interviews turned them down, they’ve succeeded. This is not a film that asks us to hate dams. It’s one that asks us to love rivers. Love them enough to bring them back for their own sake, and for ours.

Sarah Gilman is the associate editor of High Country News. She tweets @Sarah_Gilman

To see the film, check out this list of screening dates and venues.

For more beta on the rivers and dams of DamNation and beyond from HCN’s writers, check out these links.

The Colorado River:

“Muddy Waters: Silt and the Slow Demise of Glen Canyon Dam,” by Craig Childs

New Hope for the Delta: During the worst drought in more than a century, the Colorado River may flow to the sea once more,” by Matt Jenkins

The Efficiency Paradox: Why water conservation along the Colorado River — a much-vaunted silver bullet for the West’s coming era of shortage — could have devastating environmental costs,” by Matt Jenkins

“One Tough Sucker: The razorback sucker evolved in a wild Colorado River. Now, humans are its biggest problem -- and its only hope,” by Hilary Rosner

The Columbia and Snake:

“Salmon Justice: An interview with U.S. District Judge Jim Redden, who’s given uncooperative federal agencies clear warning: Submit a viable salmon restoration plan for the Snake/Columbia River Basin, or face the possible breaching of four major dams,” by Ken Olsen

“Salmon Salvation: Will a new political order be enough to finally bring the dams down?” by Ken Olsen

“Columbia Basin (Political) Science: A look at the Bonneville Power Administration's influence on salmon research,” by Steve Hawley

The Elwha:

“River of dreams: The 30-year struggle to resurrect Washington's Elwha River and one of its spectacular salmon runs,” by Adam Burke

“Rebuilding a river as Washington’s Elwha dams come down,” by Kim Todd

The White Salmon:

“Kayaking memories on the White Salmon River,” by Mike Barenti

“Dooming a dam saves dollars,” by Rebecca Clarren

The Klamath:

“Peace on the Klamath: The enemies in the West's most vicious water war have finally reached a ceasefire. This is the story of how it happened,” by Matt Jenkins

And a few more on the complexities of dams and dam removal:

“Into thin air? Global warming has spawned a call for new dams — but there may not be any water to fill them,” by Matt Jenkins

“A downside to downing dams? Freeing up stopped rivers isn't always the panacea one might expect,” by Michelle Nijhuis

“Lost Opportunity: Remediating a Superfund sacrifice zone on Montana's Clark Fork river,” by Brad Tyer

(And if you’ve managed to stick with me this long, your reward/moment of Zen is to watch part of one of Knight and Rummel’s first movies, a crazy little number about fly fishermen sprinting after roosterfish somewhere in Baja. Roosterfish, for those not in the know, “are the Elizabeth Hurley of fish. They are SO hot. But at the same time, they command respect.")

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