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In Kenneth Grahame’s whimsical classic tale, The Wind in the Willows, Mole begins the story entangled in the tedious duties of spring cleaning. But lured by something he could not define, Mole pushes and scratches out of his underground home and finds himself, for the first time in his life, by the river. “All was a-shake and a-shiver—glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated.” He meets there with a water rat, who initiates Mole in the lore and life of the river. “And you really live by the river?” Mole, wide-eyed, asks his new companion. “By it and with it and on it and in it,” Rat replies. “What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing.”
Most of us can understand Mole’s raptures, as he leaves a dark and humdrum routine for the surprising natural vivacity of the river. Indeed, as the modern built environment increasingly dominates—“destroying country without making town,” as British architecture critic Ian Nairn memorably put it—such escapes seem more vital than ever. It is easy to spot the urban and suburban accretions of our technological society, from sterile city streets devoid of any connection with their past, to miles of rectangular warehouses where meadow and pond used to be. But these are not the deepest signs of our destructive so-called civilization—instead we will often find its epitome in the very places where we presume to discover its antidote.
Particularly in the last 70 years, many of our rivers, even those free of industrial pollution, have become as artificial and suppressed—purged of their life, form, and function—as a hill levelled for mining or a wood destroyed for a mall. And there is one pre-eminent cause of this devastation: the hydroelectric dam. It gained impetus with a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union that proved more consequential than the space race and even predated the Cold War. The two materialistic giants “were locked in a battle of hydroelectric envy,” relates Paul Josephson in Industrialized Nature, “each side touting each successive dam it built as more powerful, requiring more excavation and more concrete.” Since the beginning—with the 1930s completion of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River and the Dneprostroi Dam on the Dnieper in eastern Ukraine—thousands of rivers in North America, Europe, and everywhere that the technological view of life has taken hold have been denuded of life by gigantic dams. International Rivers, a group working to preserve the life of rivers, estimates that 60% of the world’s major rivers have been dammed or diverted. In many cases, while the passage of water gives the impression of an abiding river, only a dead canal remains.
At the root of how this happened—as well as our inability to tell the difference between the husk that remains and the organism it replaced—is our modern amnesia about what a river actually is. “We in the United States have acquiesced to the destruction and degradation of our rivers,” wrote the late river expert, Luna Leopold, “in part because we have insufficient knowledge of the characteristics of rivers and the effects of our actions that alter their form and process.” As is often the case, this was a learned ignorance, built upon the arrogant and detached assumptions of the technological view of life. We turned rivers into what our false objectivity had already conceptually reduced them to: mere channels of water and units of transferrable energy.
This conceptual shift is at the heart of Martin Heidegger’s investigation of technology’s essence in his landmark essay, “The Question Concerning Technology.” While conventional wisdom would simply see an axiomatic goal—the attempt to maximize energy production from the river—being sensibly met through the means of a dam, Heidegger understands that the end is also a cause, since it is a way of looking at nature without which a hydroelectric dam would literally be inconceivable. “Modern science’s way of representing pursues and entraps nature as a calculable coherence of forces,” he explained. The technological mind is compelled to both understand and then requisition all that exists on this basis, pressing upon “nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such.” What is never asked is whether the thing so ordered and repurposed already has a vital and consequential nature, form, and function which this insistent transformation imperils. Rivers have been reductively re-conceived as a resource at the whim of demands that are unconnected to their existence, and this is the beginning of their destruction.
But is not the hydroelectric dam just a larger version of the smaller mills that had long run with the river currents? Certainly not, Heidegger maintained, for while the mill used to adapt to the river as a supplicant bends to a benefactor, now the roles are reversed. “In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command,” he argued. “The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather, the river is dammed up into the power plant. What the river is now, namely, a water-power supplier, derives from the essence of the power station.”
You can see the difference clearly in how milldams operated when the emerging Industrial Revolution had not yet smothered more grounded ways. For example, in colonial Massachusetts there remained an old English approach, disappearing at that time from England itself, in which land and river were common responsibilities to be stewarded according to long-term communal life. As Brian Donahue explains in The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord, in 1710, the colony’s legislature “passed an act to prevent nuisances by hedges, weirs, and other encumbrances obstructing the passage of fish in rivers.” Donahue concludes that “well into the eighteenth century, when milldams were small, mostly confined to brooks, and embedded in a legal tradition of tending and husbanding common resources, the volume of fish running in Concord River may even have been on the rise.” Similarly, Theodore Steinberg notes, in Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England, after a 1738 complaint about obstructed fish passage, a committee “ruled that the stones knocked down from the dam by ice each winter should not be replaced until the first day of May to allow fish to pass upstream…. To some extent, a reluctance to tamper with the natural flow of the water is apparent here.” What we see, particularly with the giant hydroelectric dams of the twentieth century, is the opposite of such reluctance. What were the consequences for rivers’ nature, form, and function?
More than a channel
“As we were coming down the river today, I could not help thinking of all that water running unchecked down to the sea,” commented Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democrat nominee for Vice President in 1920, regarding his trip along the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. Fifteen years later, then-President Roosevelt declared, in dedicating the dam on the Colorado that we now know by his predecessor’s name, “The mighty waters of the Colorado were running unused to the sea. Today we translate them into a great national possession.” These were commonplace sentiments, which certainly exemplify the technological mind’s lowering of nature to resources, or, in Heidegger’s term, “standing-reserve,” awaiting conscription into national service. Water not being actively utilized by humans according to abstractly measurable human goals is, according to this view, being wasted. But these comments and the ideas behind them also represent the typical reduction of a river to merely the water that is currently flowing on the surface of its main channel at any given moment. This is a mistake more fundamental than presuming an iceberg to consist of its tip.
A watershed—the interdependent web of tributaries, runoffs, and the land that depends on them—is logically indivisible from the main river of a basin. “All land is part of a watershed or river basin and all is shaped by the water which flows over it and through it,” Patrick McCully points out in his seminal book, Silenced Rivers. Furthermore, even the water in the main channel is only the visible part of the essential groundwater below it. “A river is much more than water flowing to the sea,” McCully emphasizes. “Its ever–shifting bed and banks and the groundwater below, are all integral parts of the river. Even the meadows, forests, marshes and backwaters of its floodplain can be seen as part of a river—and the river as part of them.” Dam builders and promoters ignore both of these realities, with far-reaching consequences. “Nothing alters a river,” McCully summarizes, “as totally as a dam.”
A large dam obstructs and diverts river flow into artificial reservoirs and/or large canals, and in doing so interrupts, alters, and reduces the flow of water down-river from the dam. In the case of dams in which water collects in a reservoir, the contents of which are released at peak intervals through the turbines and beyond, the down-river stretch usually becomes a narrower and deeper river. Where a lateral diversion canal is the primary funnel through which river water powers turbines, such as the Gabčikovo dam in Slovakia, the diverted section of the river is reduced to a trickle. Once we understand that land around and beneath these altered stretches of river is dependent upon and closely interrelated with the river channel and bank, we can easily understand that nothing is left undamaged as a result. As rivers narrow, drop, and deepen following the construction of dams, groundwater is affected.
While groundwater provides overall sustenance to life in river valleys, it also provides a large proportion of drinking water. Less groundwater means that the water table drops. “Nearly 72% of all drinking water consumed in the Danube River Basin is produced from groundwater sources, serving an overall population of some 59 million people…. Surface water and groundwater tend to be highly interconnected,” explains Igor Liska of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River. “When the river surface water level is high, river water infiltrates into the groundwater system. This is especially true during high flows, when both the river and adjoining floodplains and meadows can become flooded. In drier periods, groundwater can help recharge wetlands and even river flows, acting as a buffer and thereby helping to prevent drought.” Down-river alterations caused by dams rob the land above and below of this nourishment, while preventing groundwater from being replenished.
Even though dam-building is often connected with deceptive promises of flood prevention, it is also the case—counterintuitively—that preventing regular flooding is disastrous for life. “Because almost all dams reduce normal flooding,” in McCully’s words, “they also fragment ecosystems by isolating the river from its floodplain.” Speaking again of the part of the Danube Valley in both Slovakia and Hungary affected by the Gabčikovo dam system, campaigner Jaromír Šíbl describes it as having been a “ﬂoodplain area which was regularly ﬂooded several times a year,” with numerous side branches flowing into the Danube there. “When there was high water in the old Danube bed, it was equally high in the branches. When there was a ﬂood, the whole area—the islands, the meadows, the forests—were ﬂooded too,” Šíbl continues. “These natural ﬂoods produced the whole wide scale of different habitat conditions.” But the diversion canal and other measures to maintain it caused this natural system to shrivel up. “The Danube lost its function as a ‘life pump’ that regularly moistened and drained the riparian [riverside] landscape,” according to Alexander Zinke. “The stabilization of formerly dynamic hydrological and morphological processes led to a continuous degradation, with many forest areas drying, fisheries decreasing, and rare pioneer habitats and species largely disappearing.” To put it simply, the much-heralded “management” of natural rivers slowly kills them.
The Flow and Richness of Rivers
Our words flood and flow come from the same root, and as a river pulses with its naturally produced highs and lows, it self-regulates a precise interplay of water, sediment, and channel, sustaining life as it does so. When dams disrupt the flow of the river (both preventing normal regular flooding and exacerbating irregular flooding), they inevitably hinder the life of the valley and basin. Rivers lose the ability to sustain and spread life. The most obvious sign of this is the slow crawl of dammed rivers. On the Columbia River, FDR’s dream of “utilization” has been implemented to an extraordinary extent. As Blaine Harden notes in A River Lost, following the construction of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams on the Columbia, it “was transformed from America’s largest free-flowing stream into its most elaborately engineered electricity-irrigation-transportation machine,” adding that, “there would be 12 more big dams on the mainstem of the Columbia and more than a hundred others on its tributaries.” As a result, both the middle section of the Columbia River and the Snake River now flow at a “lake-like” one mile per hour. “Before there were dams on the Snake and Columbia, the stream-flow time from Lewiston, Idaho…to the sea was about two days. With dams, it could be as long as two weeks,” Harden writes. Similarly, there are 59 dams on the approximately 600 miles of the upper Danube, from Germany’s Black Forest to Bratislava, often slowing the Nile of Europe to a near-stop.
This taming heralds two harmful distortions: the prevention of the river sustaining its floodplain and the strange hiccups of river volume in response to demand for electricity. The great literary chronicler of the modern American West, Wallace Stegner, justly said that “a dammed river is not only stoppered like a bathtub, but it is turned on and off like a tap.” For example, water releases from Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River (near the Arizona/Utah border) produce, as McCully reported, “daily river level fluctuations of one-and-a-half meters compared to natural daily changes of a few tens of centimeters.” These unnaturally rapid and large daily fluctuations, among many consequences, “speed up erosion downstream and can wash away the trees, shrubs, and grasses along its banks.” Harden describes visiting the former vibrant confluence of the Snake and Columbia in Washington state, finding it now “a remote-controlled ‘pool,’ the level of which fluctuated to meet electricity needs on a grid that reached to southern California.”
As dams back up, store, and then release river flows, they also change the temperature of the water. The Glen Canyon Dam releases water into the Colorado up to twenty degrees colder than it would otherwise be, rendering it basically lifeless for hundreds of miles. “Except for one twelve-mile stretch,” author Robert Devine writes, “the river below the dam has lost its ability to support algae, which in turn has led to the collapse of the river’s food web.” When the reservoir storage of a river does not make it too cold, it makes it too warm. “Water released from deep in a reservoir behind a high dam is usually cooler in summer and warmer in winter than river water,” McCully explains, “while water from outlets near the top of a reservoir will tend to be warmer than river water all year round. Warming or cooling the natural river affects the amount of dissolved oxygen and suspended solids it contains and influences the chemical reactions which take place in it.” In order for the flow of a river to sustain life, it must have the right balance of oxygen and organic matter. Anything that artificially alters this balance can kill river-life just as an alteration in the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide could kill you. “Water poor in dissolved oxygen can ‘suffocate’ aquatic organisms and make water unfit to drink,” McCully continues. “Dissolved oxygen, furthermore, is vital to enable bacteria to break down organic detritus and pollution.”
What flows with the river is an essential part of it, and big dams are also deadly because they trap what must continue. The devastation to fish species has become one of the better known aspects of this problem. In the biblical account of creation, fish are the first living creatures both created and blessed by God: “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures…. Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas” (Genesis 1:20, 22). The perpetuation of this abundance and procreation relies, for many fish, on extensive migrations. Anadromous fish, such as salmon in North America and sturgeon in Europe, must be spawned in river water, travel to the sea where they mature, and then return to the same river waters where they began life to spawn the next generation.
Large hydroelectric dams place unprecedented barriers between these fish and where they need to go, representing an extraordinary reversal of human stewardship. “The massive Grand Coulee Dam was built without any fish passage facilities and cut off from the sea nearly two thousand kilometers of salmon spawning grounds on the upper Columbia,” McCully states, decimating the population in conjunction with many subsequent dams there and on the Snake River. Meanwhile, species of sturgeon in the Danube have been driven to the brink of extinction, prevented from migration by around 60 dams including the massive Iron Gate dams where modern-day Romania meets Serbia. The sturgeon is an ancient, hardy, and awesome creature which can live over a hundred years and grow to several thousand pounds. But through the heart of Europe, where sturgeon had been numerous both long before and during the growth of Central Europe’s many cultures, few remain.
The mitigation strategies that have also proliferated in recent years testify to the depth of the long-denied crisis caused by dams, while doing little to reverse it. Technological society is enamored with its ability to technologically solve all the problems it causes, but it usually succeeds in merely continuing the cycle of destruction begging for new “solutions.” Fish passages or ladders built into dams have come with big promises but disappointing results. The majority of migrating fish are still unable to negotiate them, and the dam-created reservoirs and river conditions remain cold, slow, and stripped of life. “What use is a fish ladder,” asks Tyson Roberts in his investigation of the Pak Mun Dam in Thailand—which three-quarters of fish still could not pass—if it merely enables “fish to move from one extremely unfavorable set of environmental conditions downstream (in the reservoir outflow) to a totally different but also unfavorable set of environmental conditions upstream (in the reservoir)?” Jed Brown of the US Fish and Wildlife Service also cautions, “Don’t be lulled into thinking you can build dams and still sustain anywhere near normal-sized runs of migratory fish.”
Over the last two decades, the Bonneville Power Administration, an agency of the US Department of Energy that operates dozens of hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest, has spent $16 billion on attempts to mitigate the dams’ consequences for the region’s salmon population. Initially, it even oversaw the capture and transport of salmon down the river by barge. Much of the expenditure has gone into salmon hatcheries, which not only have fallen far short of restoring the stocks to pre-dam levels, but have brought their own harm. Hatchery-produced fish are less resilient than their wild counterparts, and this can be traced to deep genetic differences. Hatchery fish are not only less able to reproduce and produce fewer offspring, but when they do reproduce with wild fish, they pass on their genetic deficiencies and further endanger the entire species. “What if by focusing on creating more fish for people to catch and eat, we’ve simply pushed the weakened salmon closer to extinction?” asks Rocky Barker in an Idaho Statesman piece appropriately entitled, “Everything We’re Doing to Replace Vanishing Salmon Might be Killing Them Off Faster.”
It is a situation that presents another exquisite example of what Peter Reynolds termed, in his book Stealing Fire, a “one-two punch” of “mutilation and prosthesis,” by which our “industrial society destroys natural cycles with one hand while building fabrications of them with the other.” These fabrications, while mimicking aspects of what they replace, form shabby and fragile alternatives. So it is with the salmon hatchery. “These herds of uniform salmon released from hatcheries have been spawned by the vision of a controlled river and ecosystem,” wrote James Lichatowich in Salmon Without Rivers. “They are a manifestation of our attempt to bend the salmon to our worldview.” As biologist Rick Williams, a co-author of the 2017 report, “Wild Pacific Salmon: A Threatened Legacy,” concludes, “Because of our long reliance on substitute nature, we’ve lost faith in salmon to reproduce itself in quality habitat.”
But it is not only fish that are significantly trapped by dams. A river normally contains a significant load of sediment, which is both picked up on the river’s journey and deposited on its course, and by which it sustains and shapes the riverbank and riverbed. Large dams, however, capture and retain in their reservoirs between 90 and 100 percent of sediment, starving the river below it of what it needs to nurture itself and its constituents. Every year, the Iron Gate dams on the Danube detain over 22 million tons of sediment. As the river continues without its sediment, it causes the erosion of both riverbanks and sandbars, as well as the riverbed itself, producing a canal-like river that can no longer either nourish riparian life or provide a spawning ground for fish. “Over time all the easily erodible material on the riverbed below the dam will eventually be removed, and the bed will become ‘armored’ with rocks,” elucidates McCully. “An armored riverbed below a dam does not have the gravels needed for spawning of fish such as salmon and as habitat for benthic (river-bottom) invertebrae such as insects, molluscs, and crustaceans.” The result is a narrower, deeper, and dead river.
If rivers no longer distribute life in their basins, the devastation outweighs temporary gains from unsustainable power generation and ultimately counterproductive irrigation projects. Sustained by the bountiful Nile, as David Montgomery unpacks in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, “Egyptian agriculture remained remarkably productive for thousands of years until people adopted new approaches out of tune with the river’s natural rhythm.” Above all, since the Aswan Dam was completed in 1964, almost all of the nutritious sediment with which the Nile nourished the delta’s soil instead sank into the Lake Nasser reservoir created by the dam. Rather than being fed and structurally stabilized, the delta was salinized. “As the renowned fertility of the Nile valley began to fall, agricultural output was sustained with chemical fertilizers—conveniently produced in new factories that are among the largest users of power generated by Nasser’s dam,” Montgomery continues. “Now, for the first time in seven thousand years, Egypt—home of humanity’s most durable garden—imports most of its food.”
And it is not only the river valleys themselves that suffer because dams ensnare sediment. When dam boosters conceived of river water running uselessly to the sea, they seemed to assume that this destination had no more purpose than spilled milk dripping from dinner table to floor. But once it enters the ocean, river sediment also supports and replenishes the coastline. Without it, beaches disappear and cliffs rapidly erode and collapse. For example, according to a 2011 report, the Akosombo Dam and two others prevent sediment reaching the Volta River estuary in Ghana, causing the coast to erode at a rate of nearly 20 feet per year. Southern California has to dredge sand from the ocean floor to replace what the river used to naturally push onto the shore. This sediment loss is particularly dramatic for a place like Louisiana, where the Mississippi and its numerous tributaries finally find the ocean. Thousands of dams in the watershed prevent a majority of the sediment reaching Louisiana and significantly contribute to an extraordinary rate of erosion in the delta, which has lost 2,000 square miles of land since the 1930s. A similar story can be told about the Mekong, Yangtze, Nile, and Yellow River deltas.
When a river denuded of life reaches the ocean, it also no longer provides the boost to marine life that it once naturally did. “Some 80 percent of the world’s fish catch comes from continental shelves. Many of these fisheries are dependent on the volume and timing of the nutrients and freshwater discharged by rivers as well as on estuary habitats,” McCully details. Returning to the Nile, “Nutrients carried to sea during the flood season once caused a huge bloom of plankton at the mouth of the Nile. This plankton was grazed by great shoals of sardines which accounted for 30 to 40 percent of the annual Egyptian sea catch.” In general, as rivers discharge both less water containing less life, with less velocity, the salinity of the estuary soars. From source to sea, big dams are robbing rivers of their nature, form, and function.
Large hydroelectric dams spread like a virus across the world from the 1930s to the 1970s, feeding off an arrogant view of nature based on the assumption that humankind could, with a detached supremacy, both fundamentally re-order and improve it. These were the illusions of technological hubris, but their consequences, ever deepening, remain with us today. The energy produced by these many thousands of dams is not “clean,” as is so frequently asserted, but is strangling the life from the world’s major rivers, valleys, and watersheds—rivers upon which human cultures and societies developed and still depend. The danger of dams is not a matter of whether humans or salmon should take precedence. When we destroy a river, we chip away inexorably at the ground on which we ourselves are standing.