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Excerpt from Endgame

Dam Experts (p. 610)

From chapter "Dams, Part II"

So far as taking out dams, we’re told by experts in the employ of corporations or the government (of occupation) that we should leave dam removal in the hands of experts in the employ of corporations or the government (of occupation).

Here’s one example of how it works. I give a talk, during which I describe civilization’s murder of rivers. I detail how salmon and sturgeon have survived for millions of years, but they are not surviving civilization and its dams. I speak of the need to remove these dams, and I speak of the need to do this now.

A man who looks to be in his mid-fifties stands, says, “I’m a hydrologist. I trust that when you talk about people taking out dams you mean that metaphorically, that you’re saying they need to remove the dams in their own hearts, the things that stop them from doing what they need to do.”

I respond, “Sure, it works as a metaphor, but removing metaphorical dams doesn’t do a damn thing to save salmon.”

Six months later I give another talk in the same town. He comes again, makes the same plea. I respond the same way. This time his wife stands, too. She leans forward, grasps the back of the seat in front of her, and says, voice strong with emotion, “I’m also a hydrologist. I’m here to strongly urge you to not be irresponsible and take this into your own hands. I cannot tell you how much harm you’re causing just by talking about this.”

“Harm to whom?” I ask.

“To the rivers. There may be people who act on your words, and if they take out a dam they’ll kill the river below. Dams fill with sediment, and if you suddenly remove the dam, water will surge down in a muddy flood, scouring the river.”

How can I respond to that? I’m not an expert. Maybe she’s right. I have seen rivers and streams devastated by sediment. I’ve seen pools filled in that before were deep and bright with the flash of fish rising to strike at flies. Admittedly, the sediment I’ve seen came not from dams being removed but from clearcuts causing hillsides to slump into streams, but it’s a powerful image, and I see her point.

We’re in a difficult spot. The rivers are in an even more difficult spot. The rivers are being killed, and if we do not remove the dams they will die. But if we— human beings, not experts—do remove the dams we will kill the rivers.

I don’t know what to do. Maybe I should trust the experts. After all, they know more than I do.


I’m doing a radio call-in show in Olympia, Washington, and I mention my dam dilemma.

Someone calls in, says, “I’ve got exactly two words for you: Toutle River.”

Silence on the line. Finally I say, “Thank you very much, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Three words then: Mt. St. Helens.” It’s clear he’s enjoying this.

“Help me out,” I say.

“When the volcano Mt. St. Helens blew back in 1980, the Toutle River just below it was not only scoured by sediment, it was boiled. A hundred foot wall of water, ash, and debris came down at a hundred to a hundred and fifty miles per hour, annihilating everything in its path. Two hundred square miles of forest were flattened. All animals were presumed dead. That’s something like ten million fish, a million birds, fifteen hundred elk, two hundred bears, and so on. All visible mosses, ferns, and other plants disappeared. About fifteen miles of the river were gone. Not just scoured. Not just boiled. Gone. It looked like a moonscape. Some scientists suggested it would never recover, certainly not in our lifetimes. Others speculated that not even insects would come back.”


“The Toutle River is in great shape, except where the Forest Service used the volcano as an excuse to let the timber industry go crazy, and where the Corps of Engineers used it as an excuse to build more of their sorry structures. No, the scientists were uniformly wrong. Insects reinhabited quickly, as did plants and birds. Most of the amphibians are back. The fish are back. The mammals are back.

“Mt. St. Helens caused far more damage than any dam removal ever could. If the river is allowed to recover, it does fine.”


Someone else calls. He says, “I’ve got two more words for you.”

“Is this an Olympia thing?” I ask.

He ignores me. “Missoula Flood.”

“Go on.”

“During the last ice age glaciers dammed the Columbia River and one of its major tributaries, the Clark Fork, creating a lake more than four times as big as Lake Erie. Eventually the water got deep enough, about 2,000 feet, to float the glacier, and that immediately busted the dam. This 2,000-foot wall of water rushed across what is now Idaho and Washington at about 100 miles per hour. The whole lake drained in a couple of days. I think the volume of water was onthe order of five or ten cubic miles per hour, more than all the other freshwater flows in the world combined. The flood was strong enough to lift and carry 100-ton rocks all the way to the ocean. Huge backwaters formed everywhere, as the main channel couldn’t hold all that water. A wall of water probably 400 feet tall pushed 100 miles south of the main channel, to what is now Eugene, Oregon. Another wall pushed up the Snake River for about the same distance.”

“Your point is . . .”

“The river and the salmon and the sturgeon survived that flood. The busting of Grand Coulee Dam would be tiny compared to that.”


He said, “One more thing. It’s actually incorrect to talk about the Missoula Flood. My understanding is that there were between forty and ninety of them. The river survived them all. It’s not surviving now.”