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Know the West

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.