Outdoorsman and outdoor equipment magnate Yvon Chouinard takes to the op-ed page of the New York Times to make a pitch for removing dams:
VENTURA, Calif. — OF the more than 80,000 dams listed by the federal government, more than 26,000 pose high or significant safety hazards. Many no longer serve any real purpose. All have limited life spans. Only about 1,750 produce hydropower, according to the National Hydropower Association.
In many cases, the benefits that dams have historically provided — for water use, flood control and electricity — can now be met more effectively without continuing to choke entire watersheds.
I think he’s on the strongest ground when opposing new dam-building:
New dams are a bad idea. We’ve glorified them for decades, but our pride in building these engineering marvels has often blinded us to the environmental damage they cause. The consequences run the length of the river and beyond. Our many complex attempts to work around these obstacles would make Rube Goldberg proud. Interventions like fish elevators and trap-and-haul programs that truck fish around impoundments don’t lead to true recovery for wild fish populations or reverse the other environmental problems caused by blocking a river’s flow.
But that’s a battle that’s already largely been won. My best efforts have failed to reveal any large new dam projects waiting for regulatory approval. We’ve been removing dams at a pretty fair pace. Some dams are being refurbished to allow them to generate hydroelectric power, generate more power, or generate it more efficiently.
I note that he doesn’t mention one of the issues with dams: they aren’t particularly green. The impound reservoirs behind large dams are substantial sources of methane, a greenhouse gas. That’s something to keep in mind the next time someone pontificates to you about how China is going green. The Chinese authorities have decided to de-emphasize wind and solar power in favor of nuclear and hydroelectric.
That highlights something I think that many Americans, especially Americans serving in Congress, have not yet come to terms with. In a developing country infrastructure spending is necessary to build new infrastructure. In a developed (or over-developed) country like the United States infrastructure spending is necessary to optimize infrastructure which is likely to include removing obsolete infrastructure. That’s a much less glamorous project than building new roads, bridges, dams, etc.
What’s the single largest impediment to dam removal? I strongly suspect it’s waiting for environmental impact assessments.
In closing this post I feel that I should reveal my immediate reaction to this op-ed. It takes a lot of chutzpah to get your message out using a medium whose server farms are probably worse for the environment than most dams. Environmentalists should oppose moving to the Cloud rather than supporting it.