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Excerpt from Endgame

Free Dam Removal (p. 587)

From chapter "Dams, Part"

Why civilization is killing the world, take twenty-three.


Not just because they imprison rivers. Not just because they kill fish. Not just because they drown forests. Not just because they leach mercury from the soil and cause it to enter the food stream. Not just because they inundate the homes of humans and nonhumans alike (the World Commission on Dams estimated in 2000 that 40-80 million people worldwide have been displaced by dams). Not just because they lead to mass wastage of water (see, for example, Las Vegas, golf courses, cotton and alfalfa fields in Arizona, and so on). Not just because they’re ugly. Not just because they’re ubiquitous (quick, name three undammed rivers). Not just because they’re often intentional instruments of genocide and ecocide. Not just because they’re often promoted as environmentally “clean.” All of these could certainly be considered good enough examples of how and why civilization is killing the world. None of these are what I’m talking about right now.

Instead I’m talking about the business of dam removal. Emphasis on business. Utter lack of emphasis on dam removal. Here is part of an article that appeared this spring on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, which describes a beautiful canyon in northeastern California as “the best hope for two endangered populations of Sacramento River salmon—the winter run and spring run.” The article continues, “Five years ago, a consensus was reached to resuscitate the salmon runs: remove five of the eight small PG&E hydropower dams on Battle Creek and outfit the remaining three with fish ladders. It was a revolutionary concept in the 150-year history of water development in California; it would mark the first time that dams would come down rather than go up. [That’s actually not entirely accurate: there have been many other dam removals, including twenty-two just along the Klamath between 1920 and 1956 at a total cost to the state of $3,000.] But today the projected price tag for a Battle Creek restoration has skyrocketed, from $26 million to about $75 million, and not a single dam has been removed.”

So much has been spent to provide so little help to fish that even a spokesperson for a landowners group made up mainly of cattle ranchers (not generally known as militant environmentalists) said, “Everyone up here is absolutely appalled at the cost over-runs, especially considering how little has been accomplished.”

The spokesperson is wrong. Much has been accomplished. In fact the process is accomplishing precisely what it’s supposed to. The point was never to save salmon. Part of the point is to pretend to save salmon but the real point is, as always within this culture, to make money. And that, it is doing.

Seventy-five million dollars to remove from five to eight dams. That’s between 9 and 15 million per dam. These dams are not big. The article states they’re twenty to thirty feet high, but the accompanying photos suggest they’re smaller. I’m guessing fifteen feet high by three feet thick by a hundred feet across (although of course span is far less important for demolition than height or thickness, since you only have to breach the dam in one or two places, with the water doing the rest).

I don’t know if it will matter to readers that my first degree was in mineral engineering physics when I say that I could take down these dams for far less than 9 to 15 million each. I took (and hate to admit, enjoyed) classes in statics, fluid mechanics, strengths of materials, and so on. I have a working knowledge of engineering, physics, chemistry. I could do it no problem.

Wanna hear my plan?

Choose a date in mid-October, when water is lowest. For weeks beforehand keep sluice gates wide to lower the water even further. Announce the dam’s removal date long in advance, and tell salmon lovers from all over the West (and especially the tribes whose lives have been intertwined with these fish forever) that you’re going to tear down the dam. Ask them to bring sledgehammers. Ask them if they’ve heard of Amish community barn raisings, and tell them we’re going to have a community dam demolition. Those without sledges can bring wheelbarrows, shovels, picks. Those without tools can bring sandwiches and big coolers of juice. I can guarantee hundreds, if not thousands, of people would show up to work shoulder to shoulder, bashing away at this barrier that separates fish—and humans—from their home. Chips would fly as fast as jokes, chunks would fall to the ground below the dam to be picked up by sweaty men and women smiling as they work together to make something beautiful, to liberate someone they love, to help the river once again to be wild. It’s hard work, but as we all know, working hard with friends is more fun than any party ever could be. And the work is productive. For the first time in many of their lives, these people are doing work that does not harm but helps the land. Gouges in the dam grow deeper, wider. As people atop the dam stop for breaks, to eat the delicious homemade food brought by others (everything from vegan potato salad to fried free range chicken to smoked salmon to watermelon to the best watercress sandwiches you’ve ever dreamed of), others jump up eagerly to take their place. Few have ever before experienced this sort of communal coming together, only its toxic mimic at football games, parties, and political rallies. Some sing while they work. Some are silent. Some just grunt with every swing of the heavy sledge.

Finally we reach the water level.

To be honest, I’m not sure what we’d do next. I haven’t done this before. The question is: How do you knock away concrete below water level without getting washed away yourself? I’m sure there are answers. I just don’t know them.If we have a big backhoe or a wrecking ball, we’re still in good shape. We just have to stand aside and knock the damn thing down. If we don’t have access to those infernal machines, then I’m not sure if we should stop and let the river do the rest of the work, or if we should continue to weaken the dam, lower it little by little, until the river rises up to finish its unshackling. But I do know that three or four of us engineers could figure it out pretty quickly. Or maybe not even engineers but just human beings. Or maybe it would be different for every dam, depending on the circumstances (you didn’t think we’d do this only once, did you?). Or maybe some readers will be able to supply—and more importantly, actualize—some answers. It is, after all, a communal project, where we each bring our skills.

I also know that it’s not really a technical problem. Although often presented as such, the primary obstacles to dam removal are almost never technical, any more than the primary obstacles to deconstructing the rest of civilization are primarily technical, any more than the primary obstacles to stopping abusers are primarily technical, any more than the primary obstacles to losing weight or quitting smoking are primarily technical. The primary obstacles are perceptual, emotional, moral, spiritual, inertial.

We would figure it out, and we would remove the dam. Together as a community.

And it wouldn’t cost the state a fucking dime. I’m sure tribes and salmon organizations would cover the costs of gas for people to get there and for food to keep them full.

Which of course is why it won’t happen this way, at least not with state approval. This would accomplish something for the river, for the fish, for the people and communities involved, but it would accomplish nothing for the engineering firms that take in millions to produce neatly bound feasibility studies.

And that, of course, is the point.