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
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    The Vice President for Landscape Conservation leads Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing on four program areas: federal public lands management; private lands...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • COMMUNITY FORESTER
    The Clearwater Resource Council located in Seeley Lake, Montana is seeking a full-time community forester with experience in both fuels mitigation and landscape restoration. Resumes...
  • GUNNISON BASIN ROUNDTABLE
    The Gunnison Basin Roundtable is currently accepting letters of interest for ten elected seats. Five of the elected members must have relevant experience in the...
  • PCTA TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISORS IN WASHINGTON'S NORTH CASCADES
    Seasonal Positions: June 17th to September 16th (14 weeks) - 3 positions to be filled The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Salary: Up to $65,000/year DOE Benefits: Generous benefits package — health insurance, Simple IRA and unlimited...
  • UTAH PUBLIC LANDS MANAGER
    Who we are: Since 1985, the Grand Canyon Trust has been a leading voice in regional conservation on the Colorado Plateau. From protecting the Grand...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Walker Basin Conservancy Reno & Yerington, NV Background The Walker Basin Conservancy (Conservancy) leads the effort to restore and maintain Walker Lake while...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    They [Northern Plains] confound the common view that ordinary people are powerless in the face of industry. - Billings Gazette editorial The venerable Northern Plains...
  • SMALL FARM AT BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA, CALIF.
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Small home, 2 barns (one has an apartment), and more. Approx. two acres just in the City limits. Famously pure air...
  • TAOS HORNO ADVENTURES
    A Multicultural Culinary Memoir Informed by History and Horticulture. Richard and Annette Rubin. At nighthawkpress.com/titles and Amazon.
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.