Let’s Talk About Water- Deadbeat Dams

Earlier this spring the Duke River Center and the Duke Water Network hosted a “Let’s Talk About Water” event, which included a film screening of DamNation, followed by a panel discussion. DamNation is a feature length film highlighting the ecosystems and people affected by dams, with some amazing footage of the removal of the Elwha River Dam, a major step in acknowledging that some dams should and can be removed. We hoped this event could provide attendees with a working understanding of the complexity of the “water-energy nexus” issues facing the US today, and the benefits and consequences of hydropower development across the developing world. To do this, we invited panelists with a range of backgrounds to provide an opportunity for creative exchange of ideas between different stakeholder positions. Panelists included Robyn Colosimo from the Army Core of Engineers, Erin Espelie from the Center for Documentary Studies, the producer of the film Matt Stoecker, and long time river runner and researcher Dave Wegner. It was our first collective opportunity to talk about a big issue with a broad audience, and was a great success!

Dams are built for a number of purposes, including flood control, irrigation, and energy production. Although dams provide useful services, they have a designed lifetime, and in many cases they have a negative impact on the integrity of the river ecosystem. The direct influences of dams on river systems include changing the flow regime (timing and amount of flow in the river), and impounding the river. Impounding the river to create a reservoir results in flooding the area upstream of the dam, which slows down and retains the sediment that rivers naturally transport. This not only starves the downstream area of valuable habitat for native aquatic species, but also slowly fills the reservoir up, reducing the storage and flood control capacity that the dam was originally designed for.

Some of the take home messages from the panel discussion on the economic and ecologic consequences of dam removal:

  • Some dams provide economic benefit to society, and as such they will not be removed.
  • There are dams that are no longer providing their intended purpose that should be removed; these ‘low-hanging fruit’ should be the primary target as we move forward.
    • This will allow for progress where it can easily happen, and provide an opportunity for research on removal best practices.
  • Once dams are removed native species can rapidly recolonize the newly connected upstream area.
  • Documentary films are a very important tool for effectively communicating science!
    • They allow the audience to emotionally connect with the subject .
    • They increase and promote awareness, which is a useful tool to create interest in developing and advocating for appropriate policies (although this takes a long time).
    • Filmmakers often have an agenda, so audiences should critically access the information provided, and follow up with additional information.

Let’s Talk About Water by the numbers: over 150 in attendance, 3 short films, dozens of raffle prizes, 4 excellent panelists, 37 survey responses

If you missed the event, check out our event recap video, the short films on Vimeo (linked below), and DamNation on Netflix. Hopefully we’ll see you next time!

“A Deeper Creek”

“The last Dragon”

“Journey to the Stikine and the Sacred Headwaters”

Also check out a recent article by American Whitewater on the Department of Energy’s New Stream Reach Development Assessment Program, given what we learned it is interesting to consider the implications of building new dams and the alternative proposed by AW- #NoNewDams