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
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...