The Dammed

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.

5 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw

    “My best efforts have failed to reveal any large new dam projects waiting for regulatory approval.”

    Ask and you may be answered:

    City Water, Light & Power [Springfield, IL] has purchased land to be flooded for Hunter Lake and provide the buffer zone, completed engineering studies for the lake, and begun to seek permits from higher governmental authorities to construct a dam and fill the lake. As of 2012 the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has intervened with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) to delay, or prevent, approval of the lake project. The approval of both the Army Corps and the IEPA are required to permit the project to go forward, and as of October 2012 the Army Corps has requested that a supplemental environmental impact study be prepared before this permit application can be considered.

  • Thanks, PD. That actually looks like a pretty fair candidate. I didn’t try looking at the USACE web site and will do so.

    The concerns of the opposition to the dam’s construction appear to be more generic than pointed. Have any insights on that subject?

  • PD Shaw

    Opponents say that the lake project is the only one going on in the country right now, but I wouldn’t know how easy it would be to confirm that.

    The dam project began in the 50s after a drought depleted Lake Springfield, which is used for the municipal water supply, recreation, and cooling for the municipal electricity plant. So, Hunter Lake would be used to replenish the other lake.

    Opponents charge that water use has changed since the 50s, we’ve lost manufacturing and are generally better at saving water. They also complain about the power plant’s use of the water to mix with fly ash to create a slurry. Also, the city could adopt a better rate structure that discourages wasteful uses.

    The Corps wants better alternatives analysis, and that has focused on gravel pits near the Sangamon River, one of which the City recently purchased, to replenish the Lake. The City complains that in a drought situation, the gravel pits will be drawn down as they are connected to the river and other wells. It seems like the Army Corps has received a few applications on this, but still wants better alternatives analaysis than they’ve provided.

    The City has acquired a lot of land for the lake, some of it outright, but some appear to just be options that would revert if the project is abandoned. It feels like the project will keep moving forward, but never go any place.

  • Andy

    I know a bit about this topic when it comes to the west, in particular the Colorado River basin. The simple fact is that most of the good dam sites in the West already have dams and those that don’t are in protected places like the Grand Canyon.

    Secondly, there is the problem of the regional climate which is generally dry. Dams can provide a buffer for scarce water in times of drought, but reservoir evaporation is a major problem in the dry climate – about 10% of the total annual flow is lost thanks to evaporation.

    Third, few of the big dams are close to full and again, water is in high demand and very scarce. Given all the demands, it would be difficult to fill a resovoir – the excess water would have to come from somewhere.

  • If you haven’t read Cadillac Desert, I recommend it, if only to make you furious.

    I have a crackpot theory that different parts of the country have different natural population carrying capacities. Places that have historically had large populations, e.g. New York, St. Louis, have high natural carrying capacities. Places that have not had such large population, e.g. Los Angeles, have low carrying capacities.

    The crackpot part of the theory is that I suspect that places with low natural carrying capacities will become increasingly hard to live in. Not enough water. Too dry. Too hot. That will become worse over time.

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