Dams are a divisive issue, but do they need to be?

What we can learn from the Elwa River.

 

This past weekend, I went to Wyoming to witness the total eclipse. As luck would have it, the moon’s shadow was to pass just north of my boyhood home, Pinedale, and so on Monday morning, my father and I shoved off in his aluminum jon boat to spend the totality on Willow Lake, fishing. We wondered whether the fish would be confused by the dusky, dwindling light — and I’m proud to report that 20 minutes before totality, my dad reeled in a respectable 2.5-pound lake trout. “Well, that was well worth it,” he declared, marking the day a success.

After the eclipse (and a late lunch of grilled fish), I headed for Colorado, driving south through the red-sand, juniper desert of Flaming Gorge Reservoir. As the sun set, haze from wildfire smoke created a blazing light that exploded across the water, and I recalled days of skipped school, cheap beer, and daring dives into cool water. But where Willow Lake is wild, glacier-carved and snow-fed, some see the Gorge as an aberration, an embolism in the artery of the Green River on its way to the Colorado. 

There are those who would have such dams come down, who see them as monuments to hubris and ecological ignorance. The dams enable humans to survive in what mapmakers once called the Great American Desert, but they do so to the detriment of other species, flooding desert cathedrals and clogging salmon runs. To a purist, they are unsightly and unnecessary. But to a pragmatist, they are critical to our survival and a symbol of progress. For all their faults, dams provide clean hydropower and irrigation, a way of harnessing the life-giving power of snowmelt, allowing a great many people to enjoy life west of the 100th meridian.

In this issue, we try to look past the contentious symbolism of dams and see what we can learn from rivers, dammed and otherwise. We examine the lessons learned on Washington’s Elwha River, whose dams came down six years ago, and Utah’s Bear River, where a diversion is still being planned. And we look at the surprisingly scant science behind calls to take down Glen Canyon Dam, which would be a major win for preservationists but a potential disaster for many Westerners.

Editor-in-chief, Brian Calvert
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Dams are a divisive issue, to be sure, but do they need to be? We are in troubled times, and I think we should all be looking for areas in our lives to practice compromise. Dams might be one place to start. Surely there are some rivers we could set free. And just as surely, there are some we should manage. Common sense might tell us which is which, where we might find compromise. But compromise, even partial compromise, seems as rare these days as a total eclipse of the sun. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -