Last week, US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, California Governor Jerry Brown and Governor Kate Brown of Oregon signed an agreement that will set into motion the biggest river restoration in the history of the United States.
Four aging dams will be removed from the Klamath River. The structures have turned the river – once the third-most productive salmon fishery in the United States (after the Columbia and the Sacramento) – into an anemic shadow of its former self.
It’s a landmark agreement, one that has moved forward despite opposition from US Congress – proving that a coalition of farmers, native groups and a utility can find common ground in the contentious (and thirsty) American west.
But the Klamath agreement is not just a local victory – it also has global significance. The agreement shows that the dam building boom may be drawing to an end, and that the United States can and may lead the way on restoring rivers and removing dams. It is leadership that is sorely needed.
For decades, the western United States was ground zero for one of the greatest experiments humans had ever undertaken: replumbing the world’s rivers. Driven by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, the United States built hundreds of large dams, catastrophically interrupting the services rivers have provided for eons: filtering and distributing water, creating fertile delta land, and nurturing critical habitat for flora and fauna.
As Marc Reisner catalogued so forcefully in the book Cadillac Desert, dam builders pursued these mega-projects with little regard for whether they were needed, or what effects they would have. It was an experiment fueled less by need than by greed – as the dam-building boom gathered steam, farmers on the East Coast were paid to leave fertile, rain-fed land fallow, while farmers in the West were subsidized with monumentally expensive projects to make the desert bloom.
It didn’t hurt that landowners made a windfall whenever irrigation came their way. Meanwhile, the agencies building dam developed an insatiable need to build more projects – mainly to keep all the engineers in business.
And we didn’t keep this ecosystem-devastating technology to ourselves. Throughout the 20th century, the Bureau of Reclamation busily exported dam technology to other countries around the world, selling these life-destroying behemoths as temples to modernity. Every developing country needed to build them, it seemed – and the countries would conveniently give American companies fat contracts to do it.
Now, a hundred years in, we see just how destructive these projects have been. We see how they can decimate the vibrant life of a river, and literally starve a people of their food source and cultural context. They also make people homeless: Globally, dams have displaced an astonishing 40-80 million people. That’s nearly three times the population of Canada.
Dam-builders undertook this gargantuan effort without clearly understanding what they would lose – the healthy, productive rivers that were once said to be so thick with fish that you could walk across a river on their bodies.
After a century of choking our rivers, fisheries up and down the West Coast are on the verge of collapse. The sighting of a single young trout in a Bay Area creek was cause for great rejoicing – a sad commentary on just how much has been lost.
Many dams in the United States are now nearing the end of their lifespan. Dam removals have increased in recent years, largely because these aging, unsafe structures – many of whose reservoirs are now filled with sediment – must be taken down for the good of the communities near them.
The problem is, the Bureau of Reclamation’s decades-long export of dam technology is still reverberating through the rest of the world. Large dams are being planned and developed on major rivers like the Mekong, the Amazon, and the Congo, where millions depend directly on their rivers for food and livelihoods.
In a hundred years, will these people really rejoice to see a lone fish return to a denuded, lifeless cascade of still-water reservoirs? That’s a future we must not contemplate or allow.
For decades, we invited other countries to follow our lead in dam-building. The result has been corruption, displacement and impoverished ecosystems.
Now we’ve discovered that natural systems actually serve us best when they are left to work the way nature designed them. It’s time for the US to export that knowledge globally, and become a global leader in the movement to restore rivers, those unsung heroes that do so much for us. The Klamath agreement is wonderful, but it’s only a first step.
In the Bay Area? Join us at 1 p.m. on April 16, 2016 for a screening of the documentary A River Between Us about the fight to restore the Klamath.