by Whit Gibbons

May 11, 2014

An ecoparadigm is an environmental approach accepted by the public without objective and critical review of its value or consideration for doing it differently. A pervasive ecoparadigm is that damming rivers is economically beneficial.

River dams are generally viewed as positive for a community or region. The fact that Hoover Dam and the Aswan High Dam were voted among the world's Top Ten Construction Achievements of the last century supports the belief. The fact that the concrete industry took the poll probably had some impact on the rankings.

Nonetheless, Hoover, aka Boulder, Dam on the Colorado River is a good starting point for positive features of dams. Hydroelectric power can be an asset. The creation of recreational reservoirs, like Lake Mead, is viewed as positive. Downstream flood control of agricultural areas has also been given as a reason for building dams, as with the development of the Imperial Valley below Hoover Dam.

However, dam critics question whether the benefits, not only of building dams but also of keeping all the ones we have, warrant the environmental costs. Dams on big rivers unquestionably have put numerous animal species in peril.

In the spirit of challenging an ecoparadigm, consider the recreational opportunities created by dams. Hunters, hikers, and bird-watchers would get far more recreation from 50,000 acres of woodlands and small wetlands than from the same amount of boring open water. Don't more people enjoy woods than reservoirs? I do not suggest eliminating all artificial lakes and reservoirs, but perhaps it's time to consider which environment would serve us best.

One line of political illogic is that not building a dam can cost jobs. That argument was used at Tellico Dam where construction was delayed by the presence of the snail darter, a little fish thought to be endangered. Creating jobs should not be an excuse for building a dam. We could create jobs equally well by removing dams. Dam deconstruction would mean jobs for people to build new roads in the drained area and to replant the forests.

Environmental costs are a major strike against dams. Fish such as sturgeon that swim up and down rivers have their geographic ranges abruptly truncated by a dam. For fish like American eels and salmon that spend part of their life in saltwater and part in fresh, encountering a dam can have serious consequences. In addition, the changes in flow patterns, increased siltation and turbidity, and fluctuating water levels have been shown to cause severe disruption to the river habitat. The loss of rare freshwater clams and mussels is appalling.

Why do we accept the negative consequences of dam building when positive returns seem minimal? Much of the problem rests with pork barrel politics, a process that seldom serves the country as well as it does the pocketbooks of politicians and their friends. And once one of these dam projects is approved in Congress, bureaucratic inertia sets in. Halting construction, even though the negative aspects far outweigh positive returns, is an unlikely scenario.

Not everyone will agree that dam building has few redeeming qualities. Some people will mention flood control for urban areas, a commonly used excuse for constructing dams. But does an upstream dam really protect the floodplain of a river from flooding? Do we really have many dammed rivers that have not also had flooding disasters downstream? Do dams simply delay the economic disasters of major floods rather than prevent them forever? Ask the people downstream who have survived a broken dam if the trauma was worth the protection offered against a few years of minor flooding. Is the protection-from-flooding feature attributed to river dams simply another ecoparadigm - blind acceptance without objective evaluation of the true worth?

Reconsidering the whole process associated with constructing river dams would be healthy. Shall we stop building dams and even demolish a few already in place? Removing dams would make for healthier river ecosystems and also create lots of jobs.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)


SREL HomeUGA Home SREL Home UGA Home