New Film DamNation Takes Aim at Bringing Down Deadbeat Dams

Two filmmakers went on a three-year adventure to understand what it takes to restore free-flowing rivers. It starts with removing deadbeat dams.

In the summer of 2011, Colorado-based filmmakers Travis Rummel and Ben Knight hit the road in a borrowed camper van with a laundry list of dams, a quiver of cameras, and a dream to create a film that would stir an emotional connection to dam removal in mainstream audiences around the country. As the miles, months, and dams began to stack up, it soon became clear that their original vision of a yearlong project would take much longer, but their timing couldn’t have been better. Along with co-producer Matt Stoecker, they witnessed the two largest removals of dams in U.S. history, and they documented the rivers coming back to life, wild salmon returning home, and kayakers paddling a free-flowing river for the first time in a century. They also broke a few rules.

Three years later, their powerful and playful new film DamNation aims to spark revolution to remove deadbeat dams around the U.S. It also explores the change in our nation’s attitude from pride in big dams as engineering feats to the growing awareness that our own future is bound to the health of our rivers. As for inspiring people to care about free-flowing rivers, early indicators suggest the team nailed it: After premiering at SXSW in Austin, Texas, DamNation left with the Audience Choice Award.

As the team revs up for their New York City premiere at IFC Center on Friday, May 9, we caught up with Rummel about the making of the film.

View Images
The former Elwha Dam looms overhead as DamNation producer and underwater photographer Matt Stoecker prepares to film Chinook salmon trapped below the impassable wall of concrete in a scene from DamNation. Photograph by Travis Rummel

Adventure: We know you didn’t say yes right away to this project. What finally made you decide to go for it?
Travis Rummel:
They say you are judged on the company you keep. Yvon Chouinard is a personal hero to both Ben and me. We were fortunate to work with him on a short film we created for 1% For The Planet. Yvon is a co-founder of 1% For The Planet, and we knew he was the real deal. Saying no to an environmental story that Yvon and Matt were obviously passionate about felt wrong to do just because it was going to be a challenging story to tell.

A: This was a big multi-year project. What kept you guys inspired through it all?
There were a lot of phases in bringing DamNation to life. Most of them were riddled with anxiety as to why we had actually said yes to the project coupled with stressing over how we were actually going to make the film watchable. With more than 85,000 dams over three-feet-high in the U.S. it was initially pretty damn challenging to decide where to start.

At the beginning there was the excitement about taking the project on and trying to learn as much about the U.S.’s relationships to dams as possible, then processing the historical aspects into understanding our modern day connection to dams and rivers. This involved a lot of time in front of the computer and book reading.

Then there was the living and working out of a van phase that lasted more than two months, where we were actually in the field filming while finding human stories to tell the larger story. This was the fun part. We actually got to film and interact with a huge swath of characters. The story finally began to take shape. This chunk was my favorite, but in the scope of the actual project it was the shortest.

Then the editing began with last-minute filming missions to fill in the blanks or further develop interesting stories. This was the hardest chunk and where the film was truly born. I am not sure how Ben keeps his editing inspiration up day-to-day in the edit cave. He works alone in a small dark office. He is his toughest critic and I think creating work that he is truly inspired by really keeps him going. That, and the fear of abject failure. You know ultimately you are going to have to share the film with a wide audience and you really want it to something you are proud of. That can be pretty inspirational and terrifying.

View Images
Travis Rummel stands on a beautifully preserved old growth cedar stump that was revealed after being submerged nearly a century under Washington’s ‘Lake’ Aldwell. The Elwha River has now re-­carved its course through the drained reservoir in a scene from DamNation. Photograph by Ben Knight

A: Why is now the time to bring DamNation to audiences?
We took on DamNation as a project in the spring of 2011. The driver behind Matt and Yvon Chouinard wanting to make a film about dam removal came from three large-scale removals that were set to begin in the summer of 2011—the Elwha Dam removals, the Condit Dam removal on the White Salmon River, and the Great Works/Veazie removals on the Penobscot River in Maine. Dam removals at this scale had never been undertaken anywhere in the world, so it truly was a historical milestone for river restoration. People had been working on these removals for as long as 30 years—so our timing could not have been better for documenting large-scale dam removals.

Beyond the actual removals themselves, I think there is a sea change in our societal views of nature. Dam removal is a great physical manifestation of this changing relationship with nature. We are finally realizing that nature gets it and there is a lot of value in functioning eco-systems. I think it comes down to generational values and our generation and the younger generations coming up do not feel the need to conquer nature. There is a lot of power and spiritual/economic value in restoring nature.

View Images
DamNation co-director Ben Knight avoids a surveillance helicopter while filming the demolition of Condit Dam on Washington’s White Salmon River in a scene from DamNation. Photograph courtesy DamNation Collection

A: This was a huge undertaking, what did you personally and professionally risk while making this film?
Utter failure and public humiliation. You risk it every time you take on a creative endeavor. DamNation was no different, just the stakes were higher given Patagonia was the lone backer and they were ready to throw their full marketing efforts behind the film—assuming we could create something decent. With risk comes reward though and having the opportunity to create a feature documentary that could actually have reach through Patagonia’s marketing heft was not lost on us.

Professionally we really wanted to create a film that would appeal to the general public and help break us out of the environmental and adventure markets. Premiering the film at SXSW and winning the Audience Choice award was a huge validation for us and now having the film open in theaters in NYC, LA, Portland, and Missoula is huge.

View Images
Before and after: A renewed pulse of life, and recreation, flows along Washington’s White Salmon River after the removal of Condit Dam in a scene from DamNation. Photograph by Ben Knight

A: So, is the dam-building era in the U.S. over?
Pretty much. We dammed almost every single spot that made any sense. The only real large-scale proposal out there is the Susitna-Watana dam in Alaska. The state is pushing the project through the permitting process now and has already dropped $165 million on studies. The Susitna-Watana dam would be the second largest in North America at 750 feet, with a projected cost of over five billion dollars. The Susitna River is home to one of Alaska’s biggest Chinook (King) salmon runs and some of the biggest white water in North America.

A: At the end of all of this, what do you hope to accomplish with DamNation?
We want to change how people view rivers and dams. Dams are not eternal, they have a finite life span—so at some point they will all need to come out. We are not advocating for removal of all dams tomorrow, there are dams that are still high contributors whether for hydropower or flood control, but tens of thousands of dams in the U.S. have reached their life expectancy and no longer contribute a net benefit. In many cases dams have been abandoned and are doing no good, only harm. We want the American people to crack down on deadbeat dams, especially the four Lower Snake River dams in eastern Washington. These four dams are high cost low return dams that block critical runs of threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead.

Please help us crack down on deadbeat dams by signing our petition that we will deliver to DC next month.