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Excerpt from Endgame

Dam Failure (p. 626)

From chapter "Dams, Part III"

I called some fisheries biologists I’d heard care deeply about salmon. Mostly they worked for tribes whose lives have always depended on the fish, although some worked for the Park Service or Fish and Wildlife. I asked them all the same question: “If someone were to blow up a dam, what effect would that have on the river below?”

They all had the same response. They refused to answer. In retrospect I don’t blame them. They probably thought I was either a fed provocateur or a terrorist (non-governmental variety), and a stupid one at that. Had I a middle-eastern accent somebody probably would have called the feds merely because I asked the question, and I would have won an all-expenses paid one-way trip to beautiful Guantanamo. As it was, I was fortunate enough to merely receive a lack of answers.

I had sensed, however, that the people I talked to really did care about the fish, and really did want to answer, if only I would phrase my question better, so that a) it let them know I really wasn’t as stupid and careless as this question, coming out of the blue, must have made me seem; b) it didn’t scare them; and c) it gave them deniability so that if the Iron Gate suddenly did collapse, allowing that stretch of the Klamath to again run free—and if I were caught and didn’t hold my mud—they wouldn’t receive a series of visits from Uncle John Ashcroft and his black-sunglasses boys demanding to know why they’d encouraged some lunatic to blow up a dam, then promising them a dog-run right next to mine at Guantanamo-by-the-sea.

Here’s the question as I eventually asked it: “I’m wondering if you can be very explicit about the damage caused to rivers by catastrophic dam failure, whether that failure is anthropogenic or natural. What are both short-term and long-term effects? How will the river be one day afterward, one year, one decade, fifty years, one hundred years? Are there gold-standard studies that have been done on this? To be clear: I want to know what precisely is the damage done by catastrophic dam failure.

“That leads to a thought experiment. One of the great things about being a writer is that I get to pursue all sorts of thought experiments to their endpoints (I guess we all get to do this, but it’s what I get to do all the time). For part of one book I delved as deeply as I could into the cultural and economic causes of slavery. For part of another book I asked how the processes of schooling destroy our creativity, and what would a schooling that nurtured creativity look and feel like. In yet another I explored the history and future of surveillance.

“One of the things I’m doing in my current book is playing out short- to mid-term future scenarios and trying to explore what would be the right actions to take in those circumstances.

“So, here’s the thought experiment: Pretend it’s 2015 and the oil economy has collapsed. This brought down with it the electrical infrastructure. I’m putting forward this possible scenario because a) world oil production has probably peaked (or will peak very soon, as will natural gas production), so it’s not unfeasible; and more to the point, b) I want to talk about community decision-making processes. In this scenario, the Corps of Engineers is no longer relevant. Nor is the U.S. government. Decisions affecting local rivers are made by those who live on these rivers (what a concept!). Under this scenario, dams are no longer useful for electricity or irrigation (for obvious reasons). Now, your community is going to decide whether to take out dams along this river. Because it is a communal decision, all humans along the banks of the river will be warned, so there will be no loss of human life. The people in your community ask you to speak for the fish and the other creatures of the river, for the river itself. The question for you is: Would it be in the interest of the salmon, lampreys, trout, and other river-based creatures (and the river itself) to remove the dam, even if it is done catastrophically, or would it be better to leave the dam standing, and to eventually let it fail on its own? Why in either case? Other stakeholders will discuss other perspectives on this, but community members really want to hear your interpretation, your understanding, of the river’s perspective.

“The next question is: Would your answer be different for big dams rather than little ones?

“The next question: Would your answer be different if there were threatened nonanadromous populations in the river?” [Anadromous fishes are those who spend all or part of their adult life in saltwater and return to freshwater streams and rivers to spawn.]

“If the choice is to remove the dam, when would be best?

“The reason I’m doing this thought experiment is that just like in any good experiment (I knew my degree in physics would be good for something) I’m trying to reduce the variables and examine one question at a time. The one question here has to do with the relationship between dams and rivers. Given what seems very clear about the transitory nature of the oil economy, these questions of what communities want to do about the rivers that are their lifeblood will soon no longer be theoretical, and I would like to have some of these questions begin to percolate into public discourse, to be discussed as deeply, intelligently, and passionately as we can, so that as things become increasingly chaotic, people and communities have some analyses that may help them to make decisions in the best interests of their landbases.”

It’s an odd and overwhelming indictment of the self-censorship that characterizes this culture’s discourse that I had to create this several-paragraph hypothetical frame simply to ask the first and in many ways only question that everyone who has ever been associated in any way with any dam anywhere in the world should ask at every moment, which is, “When this dam comes down, how will that affect the river?”

But creating this huge and in some ways ludicrous frame did get me answers. Did it ever!

The advocates for fish with whom I spoke were bursting to talk about the rivers they love, and how dams were killing the rivers. The words flowed in a rush, as though my mere rephrasing of the question to make it safe had allowed a dam to burst inside of them.

They in turn gave me that same gift, as the understanding I gained from these conversations burst cognitive and emotional dams inside me, destroyed old ways of seeing the world and made new ones. The conversations transformed me, made me stronger, more determined.

Maybe they will do the same for you.


Rivers live for millions of years. If we were able to see rivers as they are, we would know that they are in no way static, that instead they writhe like snakes. They abandon old channels, cut new ones, refind old ones again.

These rivers who live for millions of years—these rivers who dance, sway, move to rhythms we might be able to hear in our dreams or if we listen in the dreams of the soil and the rocks and the salmon and the snails and caddisflies— are not only the water between their banks. A river is its entire valley, and the entire valley is the river.

Insects live in aquifers, and fish swim through gravel, ten, twenty, thirty feet below the “bottom” of the river. Coho swim in tiny ponds far from the river, and when you come back you are certain they have been eaten by raccoons, but you come back again the next day and there they are. Where were they? Swimming among the cobbles.

Rock, water, salmon, bear, eagle, insect, aquifer. These all live together. They are all part of the river. And they are all in constant flux.

Sometimes the flux is violent. One fisheries biologist told me, “Many people are upset when a river shifts channels during floods and leaves one dry and tears through another. They notice that fish are stranded (but become available for animals). They do not however typically think about the mice and salamanders and insects who are drowned or crushed. Plants are ripped out and washed to the ocean. I think about all of the flora and fauna, feel for all of them, but I’ve evolved into acceptance of the devastation (change) that occurs in rivers during floods (the river I work with and love is a really dynamic river). Many people want to stop rivers from migrating but migration forms new productive habitats!

“Based on this experience, I’ve developed a philosophy that in some instances it’s better to remove a problem, accept the immediate impact to creatures, do what’s possible and necessary to mitigate that impact, and open up the habitat to the organisms (human and nonhuman people) who belong there. I especially think of anadromous fish, as their nutrient input to upland environments is critical to supporting huge numbers of other animals and plants. I always apologize to everyone who will be impacted. In other cases, passive restoration (of landslides or mass wasting hillslopes and channels) is more appropriate— letting trees grow back for hundreds of years without interference.”

Dams happen naturally. Landslides, lava flows, glaciers cover rivers. That happens. The problem is not that there is a dam on this or that river. The problem is that there are two million dams on almost every river and almost every stream.

And dams break naturally. It happens all the time. Witness the Missoula Floods, all forty of them. “Seventy thousand years ago,” another person said to me, “a volcanic dam filled the entire Shasta Valley. But the water eventually wore through. And because of that the river is very productive. Six thousand years ago, Mount Mazama blew up and buried Upper Klamath Lake and the Williamson River in ten feet of volcanic ash. Because of that the river is very productive. When you think about it in geologic terms, that’s how things happen. Streams and rivers get dammed, and then the water breaks through. That’s what rivers do. Habitat is destroyed, and then habitat is created. Floods aren’t really all that damaging to rivers, anyway. And that’s what any catastrophic dam failure would be: a big flood. If you want to know what will happen when a dam blows, your best bet is to look at natural cataclysms that are on par with what you’re talking about. Mount St. Helens closely mimics, although far exceeds, what would happen with a dam flood.”

Another said, “If you take out a dam, yes, that’s a major catastrophe, but you’ve got fish in the ocean who will come back in one, two, three, four years. And you’ve got fish who will reinhabit from other streams. If you don’t take out a dam, the salmon will not make it. If you do, the salmon will, so long as there is still a living ocean.”

And yet another, “Long term effects of dam removal: none. If the dams are going to come down eventually anyway, the river will eventually recover. That’s what happens. Then the salmon reinhabit. That’s what they did on the Columbia after the Missoula Flood. That’s what they’ll do here. About 2 percent of salmon don’t go back to their original river, but find new places to spawn.”

Yet another, “People don’t understand that if you provide animals with high enough quality habitat, they can live there. If you destroy their habitat, they will die. And forests and rivers are dying. Below dams there is a tremendous starvation for sediment,and above dams a tremendous starvation of nutrients from the oceans. Salmon, sturgeon, rivers, and so on have survived millions of years of volcanoes, glaciers, and so on, but they have barely survived one hundred years of this culture. They will not survive another hundred. Probably not another fifty. Maybe not another twenty. The dams need to go.”

I asked them to speak for the fish and the other creatures of the river, to speak for the rivers themselves. I asked, “Would it be in the interest of the salmon, lampreys, trout, and other river-based creatures (and the river itself ) to remove dams, even if done catastrophically, or would it be better to leave dams standing, to let them eventually fail on their own?”

They said, “Remove them,” and “Yes, take them down,” and “Yes, they need to come down now,” and “Yes,” and “Yes,” and “Yes.” They said, “If there’s no way to take out the dam gradually, then yes, just get it done and over with. The short-term damage to the fishery would be worth the long-term gains, absolutely.” They said, “Catastrophic dam removal can destroy short-term habitat and create long-term habitat.” They said, “From the perspective of a river the only case I can think of where you might not remove a dam would be if there is a small population of a rare species found nowhere else, then a dam failure could cause its final extinction. That might be the case with the Missouri River and the pallid sturgeon. But what is killing that sturgeon? Dams. So I think even then it’s not so much a question of not removing dams as it is just being more careful about when and how you do it.” And the people said, “Yes,” and “Yes,” and “Yes.” They said, “What we need to do is so very clear. People who oppose dam removal are shortsighted. They absolutely cannot see the long view.” And they said, “Those who oppose dam removal are small-minded people who haven’t thought about what and who these creatures are, and what these obstructions mean.” They said, “Those who oppose dam removal have no faith in the natural world. They have no faith in its resilience and will to live. They think that more management is necessary because humans—always humans—know what is best for rivers, who somehow won’t survive without our meddling. That’s nonsense. We need to set rivers free and then trust that rivers know how to take care of themselves.”