The Problem with Dams

Written by Erika Sobelman, ESLLC 2016-2017

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Hydroelectricity. Sounds great, right? In some ways, yeah, it is. Hydroelectric energy is generally cleaner than burning fossil fuels or natural gas. But, this isn’t the only controversy that surrounds dams and hydroelectric power.

In 1882, in Appleton, Wisconsin, the world’s first hydroelectric power plant began operating. Approximately 50 years later, the Hoover Dam opened. It was considered an “engineering victory of the First Order” by Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the time. Americans considered the dam to be almost to par with national monuments, but the impact this dam had on the environment is monumental in all the wrong ways. There was a huge increase in the amount of dams in the country in the 1900s, as reservoirs provided a source of water in places where water was not necessarily meant to be and provided energy through turbines pushed by water. Between 1950 and 1970, 30,000 federal dams were built; this was the heyday of dams. It was a good idea at first but as time ticked, these dams had rather negative effects on the surrounding environment.

The environmental issues that dams cause include broken fish migrations, river degradation, erosion, endangerment of species, and more. Prior to the building of the Hoover Dam, the Colorado River was accustomed to natural flooding and species of plants and animals had evolved to withstand the floods. But, when the dam was built, the floods ceased which threatened the survival of various species, endangering many.

The journey of a salmon’s life is an extremely interesting one as salmon are one of the animals that participates in natal philopatry. The salmon’s eggs are hatched in a freshwater stream, also known as its birth stream. The salmon will then swim through estuaries then to the ocean as they become adults. The salmon will soon return to their birth stream where they will lay their eggs then die. When dams are brought into this situation, the speed of river flow is changed and there are potentially obstructions to returning to the birth streams. The salmon are confused and potentially butt their heads against the wall of the dam until they kill themselves as they only know that they need to get back to their birth stream. They do not understand the concept of human infrastructure for convenience; they are simply trying to complete their life’s purpose to repopulate the next generation of salmon. Some dams have implemented fish ladders which tries to help fish get through the dams but in a study done by Yale, migration is still blocked as fish ladders are “not effective.”

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In the late 1990s, there was a shift in the views on dams in the United States as dam removals began occurring. Many of the dams of the US were brought down in the following years despite some controversy surrounding economic and social issues like the loss of jobs and the removal of some people from their homes because of potential flooding from the dam removal. The Bureau of Reclamation has been working on these projects for a while now, but some companies are working against them as they push for clean energy through the form of hydroelectricity but hydroelectricity in the form of dams has not been too clean in the past.

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