Those damn dams

Shasta Dam, damnit.

Shasta Dam, damnit.

Photo courtesy of State Department of water resources

Auntie Ruth is not old enough to have been raised on Woody Guthrie’s knee, but she has spent a great deal of time at Grand Coulee Dam, the enormous concrete edifice spanning the Columbia River in eastern Washington. According to local lore, the electricity generated by the dam, combined with the bauxite (aluminum ore) mined in central Washington and then fabricated into fighter planes and bombers at the Boeing factory in Seattle, directly contributed to our victory in World War II. What the locals don’t tell you is that generating electricity was practically an afterthought when the construction of it and dozens of other dams was authorized by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression.

In fact, most of the dams in the western United States—including virtually all of the dams in California—were constructed not to generate electricity, but to irrigate land which geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell correctly called the Great American Desert back in the 19th century. As the late Marc Reisner notes in the classic text Cadillac Desert, Congress and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation paid little heed to Powell’s advice to develop dams and irrigation projects in river basins, instead doling out the pork equally across the West. The result was projects that have helped turned California into the breadbasket of the world, even as they’ve wreaked environmental havoc on the state’s river systems and wildlife.

It doesn’t have to be this way. That’s the subject of a global conference on sustainable hydroelectricity being held in Reykjavik, Iceland, this week. Proponents believe hydropower, both on a small and large scale, can be sustainable if “a more inclusive process was recommended in the planning, development and management of water and energy schemes.” If that is indeed possible, generating electricity with hydropower, which produces no greenhouse emissions, will almost certainly be in our future energy mix. That’s not insignificant: Hydroelectricity already contributes 16 percent of the world’s electricity, and 85 percent of all that is generated from renewable sources. It’s time to give everything another look.