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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. Photo: Travis Rummel

Filmmakers Find Dam Removal Has Captured the Public’s Imagination

A year after their award-winning film came out, the DamNation filmmakers share a look at the growing public support for “deadbeat” dam removal in the U.S.

This past summer, a demolition crew used a battery of explosives to destroy the last section of the 210-foot-tall Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River in northwestern Washington state. The blasts completed the largest dam-removal project in history, and they were a milestone for a movement: for 20 years, conservationists have campaigned to remove outdated and ecologically destructive dams from U.S. rivers. Many of the 1,185 dams removed so far are small—some less than 10 feet high—but the successful removal of large dams like Glines Canyon have bolstered the movement’s confidence and increased its ambitions. (Find out about the dams removed or blown up in the U.S. in 2014.)

Filmmakers Travis Rummel and Matt Stoecker, along with their colleague Ben Knight, chronicled this movement in their acclaimed 2014 documentary DamNation (Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the outdoor apparel company Patagonia, is the film’s executive producer). Last week, Rummel and Stoecker brought their film to Washington, D.C., for showings on Capitol Hill and at National Geographic. They also met with members of Congress and White House officials to press for the removal of the lower Snake River dams, four large federal dams in eastern Washington state that many scientists and conservationists say are a major obstacle to salmon recovery in the Columbia River Basin. They also delivered a petition with 60,000+ signatures in support of removing “deadbeat” dams, or dams that are no longer productive. Rummel and Stoecker say that the seemingly speedy restoration of rivers like the Elwha is an eloquent argument for freeing the Snake.

“A lot of people have never seen [dam removal] happen, and they feel like it’s too complicated, too risky,” says Stoecker. “It’s super powerful for them to see that restoration after dam removal isn’t a question mark. It’s a given that these systems come back.”

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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; Photographs by Ben Knight

Adventure: Matt, how did the experience of making the film change your thinking about dams and dam removal?

Matt Stoecker: I’ve worked on a lot of really small dam removal projects, ten feet and under, and while making the film it was cool to have the chance to see these huge dams come out. Just in the past decade, we’ve gone from removing 30- or 40-foot-tall dams to removing dams that are more than 200 feet tall. We’re seeing how quickly salmon and steelhead come back to rivers like the Elwha—that they start coming back even during the deconstruction process. I knew the fish would respond quickly, but seeing it happen on a big scale like that was really impressive.

A: What’s happened to make these larger demolitions possible?

MS: People have gotten a little more confident with each dam removal. They see 40-foot dams come out, and see the sediment flush downstream quickly and without much consequence, and that success makes them willing to take on a larger project.

A: Travis, I understand that you and your business partner Ben Knight initially turned down the DamNation project. What convinced you to sign on?

TR: We had a long history of doing films about salmon and rivers, but we had always kind of written off the Lower 48. We were more interested in trying to conserve places that still had fully functioning ecosystems. But as we learned more about the project, and as we actually saw dams come down in real time and saw how quickly ecosystems responded—we’re full believers in the power of restoration now.

It’s also been powerful to see how dam removal has really captured the public’s imagination, especially in the Pacific Northwest. To see how celebrated the Condit and Elwha dam removals were, to see how thirsty people were for that sort of change—that’s what’s fueling the momentum behind dam removal nationally.

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The DamNation team gave Council on Environmental Quality Chair Mike Boots, a top environmental adviser to President Obama, a box representing more than 60,000 petition signatures asking President Obama to “Crack Down on Deadbeat Dams,” starting with the four low value, high cost dams on the lower Snake River in Southeast Washington state; Photograph by Erin Feinblatt

A: As you learned about the issues, what surprised you most?

TR: One was just the number of dams in the U.S.—it’s staggering that the country has 80,000 dams taller than six feet. I live in Colorado, and there dams are a big part of our lives—they convey water from the west side of the state to the east side, and it’s easy to think that they’re going to be there for ever. But once you realize how broken the river systems are, and how easy it really is to take out a dam, and how successful every dam removal to date has been—it gives you a lot of hope for the future. Another thing I’ve noticed is how generational the issue is—the new generations are embracing the idea of restoring ecosystems and the value that comes with that.

A: The film has attracted a lot of attention since its release. What are some of the most common questions you hear from audience members?

MS: People often ask us whether dams provide a clean source of energy. We’ve been sold this myth of clean hydropower for a long time, but in the last few years studies have come out showing how much methane reservoirs are releasing, how they’ve submerged all these forests and grasslands that were capturing carbon, and how dams are stopping sediment from reaching the coast. We’re learning that dams have a huge negative impact on the whole climate change situation, and a lot of people are really surprised by that.

TR: People also want to know how they can become a dam buster—what they can do in their watershed, how they can get involved, and that’s very rewarding to hear. The first step is always for them to learn about their local watershed and learn what’s happening—each dam is so localized that there’s no single way to get involved with the issue.

MS: Sometimes people feel like they can’t do anything, but one thing we try to point out is that almost all of these dam removals started with one person. Often it wasn’t someone with a lot of technical knowledge about rivers or engineering—it was just someone who had a lot of passion. The personal characteristic that most often results in dam removal is persistence.

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Last week U.S. Senator Al Franken hosted a screening of DamNation on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., followed by a panel with Jim Waddell, Economist, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Ret.); Leda Huta, Executive Director, Endangered Species Coalition; Matt Stoecker, Fish Biologist and Producer, DamNation; Travis Rummel, Co-Director and Producer, DamNation; Sam Mace, Inland Northwest Director, Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition; and moderator Chris Johns, Chief Content Officer, National Geographic; Photograph by Erin Feinblatt

A: People have been talking about taking down the lower Snake River dams for 20 years now. Why is now the right time to take your case to Congress and the White House?

TR I think the general public is all of a sudden aware that dam removal works, that the fish come back almost immediately. Before, people hadn’t seen it work, and it took much more imagination—it was much more of a leap of faith. Now, we have these great, concrete examples of success on a large scale, and I think dam removal seems a lot more feasible to a lot more people.

MS: Some people think that removing the Snake River dams would be one more step toward removing all the dams from the Columbia, or all dams everywhere, but that’s not the case. There are dams like the Grand Coulee that clearly aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The agencies that manage the Columbia River dams need to realize that removing low performing, really harmful dams like the lower Snake River dams will have a huge positive impact on the Columbia, and that will ultimately make their jobs easier—it will be easier to recover the system, and easier to eventually take salmon off the endangered species list.

The dam removals that have happened in the U.S. so far have been really critical for their watersheds and their regions, but removing the four lower Snake River dams will help restore the largest salmon river in America. We’re not talking about a couple of thousand fish coming back—we’re talking about restoring millions of salmon, and that will have impacts all through the Pacific Northwest and the northern Pacific Ocean. People all across the country should want to restore the Columbia—it’s the gem of all the salmon rivers in the country, and we have an amazing opportunity to bring it back.