Excerpt – Dams Aren’t Forever

Excerpt from Deadbeat Dams, pp. 67-69.

… people are willing to blindly put their faith in the promise of a dam. Somehow, people see dams as a panacea for problems, both real and imagined. Even when you point out to someone that a dam won’t solve their problems, they don’t seem to want to hear it. They have somehow fixed their hopes on a mound of concrete and rebar stretched across a river, and they can’t be dissuaded from the conclusion that this is the right approach and it will bring them a brighter future.

Because dams are so large, they look and feel permanent to most people. Once constructed and operating, a dam and reservoir cross an imaginary threshold and are brought easily into our lives. Something this large must be reckoned with, and we quickly make the necessary adjustments. We assume a large dam with a reservoir extending behind it is there permanently and we have to accept it. The dam and its reservoir are added to our language and maps and become a permanent part of our vocabulary and geography.

What most people don’t realize is that dams and other structures are not permanent fixtures on the landscape. They are there because we made a political decision to build them. They didn’t get there by accident. We made a conscious decision to invest money to build a dam, and that decision is always made by one of our political institutions. The decision to build a dam isn’t a scientific decision or an economic one. It is, pure and simple, a political decision.

And it is also important to remember that dams don’t last for- ever. Even though they appear on Google Maps or in a National Geographic atlas, that doesn’t mean they are permanent. Dams can collapse, as the Teton Dam in Idaho did in the mid-1970s. Dams and reservoirs can fill with silt, and like any artificial structure, they will deteriorate with age. Most government regulators and insurance executives assume that the useful life of a dam is fifty to seventy-five years. After that, a decision must be made for safety reasons to rehabilitate the structure or remove it.

In many cases, the politicians who decided to construct a dam many years ago made mistakes. The problems a dam was built to solve sometime don’t materialize or are resolved in other ways. A dam might be poorly designed or improperly constructed. For whatever reason, mistakes are made. In other instances, dams out-live their usefulness. We all make mistakes, and we all understand that an object can become obsolete. Times and conditions change.

Everyone accepts this reasoning up to the point where we be- gin to talk about removing dams. For some reason, when the suggestion is made that we should remove an obsolete or unnecessary dam, it is like lighting a match and tossing it on a stack of firewood soaked with gasoline—the explosion is immediate and intense.

It’s quite reasonable for us to question that if a dam is no longer fulfilling its intended purpose whether it should remain standing. Our political institutions approve dam projects for a specific set of reasons at a particular point in time. After forty or fifty years, things change. Today, everyone would agree that we have a different economy, a different set of environmental values, and different social values than we did fifty years ago. If that’s the case, why should we blindly accept and live with decisions made fifty or a hundred years ago if those are inconsistent with today’s values or economy?

Even more compelling in my mind is this question: Why should we have to accept the misguided or mistaken decisions made by those who preceded us? Just because some politicians made a stupid decision fifty years ago doesn’t mean we should have to live with their mistakes. Senator Barry Goldwater and Congressman Morris K. Udall both said late in their lives that Glen Canyon Dam had been a mistake and should never have been built. Why do we have to live with that mistake?

We have the ability to correct these mistakes. Just because the dam and reservoir are there and many perceive it to be a permanent fixture on the landscape doesn’t mean it has to be. We can correct the mistakes of the past and make intelligent choices about the future.