Americas Big Dam Problem

While environmentalists claim to battle for renewable energy, dams that provide renewable power to 10 percent of the United States have come under increasing attack.

    Power from the people – The three broadcast networks had a news blackout on environmentalists’ campaign to tear down America’s dams. In 13 months of network coverage, not one story touched on the topic. By comparison, the top five newspapers did 65 stories on just one of the possible dam tear-downs. Other threats are important – ABC, CBS and NBC agreed that some dangers to the dams – overwhelming storms, poor maintenance and terrorism – were worthy of stories. Two-thirds of the network stories about dams focused on such threats. Dam removal as government policy – A $7-million analysis of the need to remove O'Shaughnessy Dam near San Francisco was included in the president’s most recent budget, though the dam provides power and water to a major city.

 Now the world holds seven wonders that the travelers always tell
Some gardens and some towers, I guess you know them well.
But now the greatest wonder is in Uncle Sam's fair land
It's the big Columbia River and the big Grand Coulee dam.

– “The Grand Coulee Dam,” Woody Guthrie

     America’s dams are in danger. Not just from terrorists or the ravages of time, but from the extreme fringe of the environmental movement. Operating under a well-organized national campaign, groups like Environmental Defense, the Sierra Club and others are systematically trying to tear down dams, destroy hydroelectric facilities and prevent new dams from being built.

     In many cases, it’s simply to save fish, especially salmon.

     The battle is being fought by lawyers, lobbyists, volunteers and eco-friendly scientists. In January 2007, the U.S. Interior Department ruled power company PacifiCorp must spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build fish ladders across its Klamath River dams or tear down those very same dams, eliminating power for 70,000 people.

     A May 2006 Supreme Court ruling sided with “fish and kayakers” over hydroelectric plants, saying “that state regulators may require a steady flow of water over power dams,” according to the May 16, 2006, Los Angeles Times.

     And the network news shows aren’t telling viewers anything about it.

     A Business & Media Institute analysis of broadcast news shows from Jan. 1, 2006, to Jan. 31, 2007, revealed no network stories on the issue. But it was a topic that received extensive print news coverage. The nation’s top five dailies – USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times – all covered the controversy during the same time period.

     In just the Klamath River case, those daily newspapers covered the story 65 times during the 13 months. The Los Angeles Times led the pack with 39 stories, but each paper wrote on the issue at least once.

     That’s because big things are happening in the environmental movement. Since 1999, according to the Energy Information Administration, hydropower facilities have been decommissioned equaling more than 220 megawatts of power. In that same time period, roughly 185 dams have been removed, reported Time magazine, though not all were hydropower facilities.

     America’s more than 2,500 hydropower facilities account for roughly 10 percent of the U.S. energy supply or the equivalent of 500 million barrels of oil. However, environmental extremists oppose “Big Hydro” from dams – so much that they don’t even count it as renewable energy.

     The Environmental Protection Agency still considers hydropower “a renewable energy resource because it uses the Earth's water cycle to generate electricity.” But major hydropower projects now face opposition years after their construction.

     According to the Los Angeles Times, Oct. 1, 2006: “by 2002, environmentalists had persuaded state legislators to require that California utilities get at least 20% of the power they sell from renewable sources by 2017.”

     Large hydroelectric plants like the Hoover Dam were kept out of the definition of renewable energy. Environmentalists don’t like the large dams because they say “they harm fish and cause the buildup of silt,” the Times reported.

     Three major battlegrounds pose even more significant losses to the U.S. power grid. Environmentalists won a huge victory with the ruling on the Klamath River dams. There are also active campaigns to remove hydropower dams across the nation, including:

    O'Shaughnessy Dam – This dam is 300 feet above the floor of the Hetch Hetchy Valley and provides water and power to much of San Francisco. Its 400 megawatts of power represent almost twice the total amount of hydropower decommissioned from 1999-2005.

Dam Removal a Recent Problem

     More than 600 dams were removed across the United States during the 20th Century, but those removals escalated in recent years. With the decommissioning of Maine’s power-generating Edwards Dam in 1999, removal became an ongoing left-wing strategy. That removal raised the stakes because “It was the first hydroelectric dam in the United States ordered breached by the government against the dam owners' wishes,” explained in a July 19, 2000, story.

     From that point on, pressure mounted for more dam removals. In 2000, the four hydroelectric dams on the Pacific Northwest’s lower Snake River even factored in the presidential campaign. Then-presidential candidate George W. Bush criticized his opponent Al Gore over the idea of removing the dams. Bush defended the dams, but Gore took no formal position. “Al Gore should take a stand. I say we can use technology to save the salmon, without leaving the door open to destroying these dams,” Bush said, according to

     More dams were removed. Maine’s first hydroelectric plant, the Smelt Hill Dam on the Presumpscot River, was decommissioned in 2002, 110 years after its construction. The million-dollar effort was mostly paid for by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to Waterpower Magazine. Other hydropower dams were shut down in Georgia, Florida and elsewhere.

     But the big environmental push was out West, and the targets had far more impact on the power grid. The attacks on Klamath dams, along the Oregon/California border, the ones on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington and California’s Hetch Hetchy conflict all gained momentum.

     Pressure to remove the Klamath dams was brought to bear on its owners at PacifiCorp. The company was given little choice between building ladders for salmon to travel over the dams and removing the dams altogether.

     The March 30, 2006, Los Angeles Times reported the ladders weren’t a practical solution. “Construction of fish ladders over the dams could prove formidable. The ladders would have to step an exhausting 120 times to top Iron Gate Dam and run for nearly two miles. Biologists question if salmon and steelhead trout would even use the ladders.”

     A Jan. 31, 2007, follow-up story admitted the ladders could cost $470 million, “as much as $285 million more than the cost of removing the dams and replacing the electricity for the next 30 years, according to a government study.”

     Nevertheless, that was the choice ordered early in 2007 – either the ridiculous cost for the ladders or removing the dams.

     Meanwhile, other environmentalists were battling to dismantle the dam at Hetch Hetchy. The July 20, 2006, Los Angeles Times included a new report that dismantling the dam “could range from $3 billion to nearly $10 billion.”

     Opponents of removal criticized the outrageous cost. Liberal Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the former mayor of San Francisco, called the price estimate “indefensible” and warned it would leave the state vulnerable to “drought and blackout.”

     But environmentalists were emboldened and said the billions of dollars made removal feasible. As the LA Times reported: “‘This is a great start,’ said Jerry Cadagan, chairman of Restore Hetch Hetchy, which champions removal of the dam. ‘The state has declared that this can be done. That’s something a lot of people have been reluctant to admit for a long time.’”

Dam History

     Dams have a long and useful history in the United States for everything from recreation and flood control to power generation. At one time, liberals even embraced them as signs of progress and a way to create jobs. Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made dam creation a significant part of his presidency.

     Author John Berlau recalled this fact in his book “Eco-Freaks.” In the chapter titled “Hurricane Katrina: Blame It On Dam Environmentalists,” he reminded readers that FDR dedicated the Hoover Dam in 1935. “This morning I came, I saw, and I was conquered, as everyone would be who sees for the first time this great feat of mankind,” the book quoted Roosevelt.

     FDR’s efforts with the Tennessee Valley Authority also involved dam construction. In fact, the FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., incorporates the theme of those water projects into its construction.

     Folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote fondly of dams, especially the Grand Coulee Dam, which he called “about the biggest thing that man has ever done” in his song of the same name. Gonzaga University professor of history Robert C. Carriker described it as a genuine love of the dam. “To Woody the dam stood as a monument of working-class consciousness and solidarity,” he wrote in 2001.

     But the left-wing love affair with dams is long gone. A 2002 report even blamed dams for global warming. The International Rivers Network report, “Flooding the Land, Warming the Earth,” claimed dam reservoirs contribute about 4 percent of the earth’s carbon dioxide emissions. According to a June 12, 2002, story by Inter Press Service, IRN's campaigns director Patrick McCully argued, “In tropical areas, hydropower reservoirs may be much worse climate polluters than even coal power plants.”

     Now, environmental groups rarely comment on hydropower as “renewable energy” and focus mostly on wind or solar power. At the same time, they are working actively to remove dams and, in the case of hydropower facilities, the power they provide.

     One such group, American Rivers, says that it “is aware of over 460 dams that have been removed over the past 40 years in this country.” The group’s Web site says more are on the way – “and at least 100 more are either committed for removal or under active consideration for removal.”

     American Rivers and its many allies use everything in their arsenals to bring down the dams, including lawsuits and sophisticated marketing efforts.

     In January 2007, Environmental Defense amped up its own public relations campaign and unveiled a project with actor Harrison Ford narrating a “documentary film on restoring this national treasure,” titled “Discover Hetch Hetchy.”

     Another group opposing the dams is Earthjustice and its entire purpose is to sue on behalf of the other groups. According to its own Web site, “Earthjustice attorneys, representing citizen groups, scientists, and others, go to court to see that the laws are obeyed and enforced.”

     The other groups – Environmental Defense, the Sierra Club and more – all figure prominently in the left’s global warming crusade, though that directly conflicts with the removal of renewable energy from the power grid.

Network Coverage Totally Ignores Issue

     If they weren’t paying close attention, viewers could easily think dams were important to network reporters. When storms over-filled dams in Maryland or Maine, the stories received detailed attention. During the 13 months of the study, 68 percent of the stories (45 out of 66) mentioned threats to the dams such as storms, poor maintenance or terrorism.

     But none of the stories even discussed the plan to tear down the Klamath dams or the Supreme Court ruling that gave environmentalists more sway than power companies.

     The May 16 CBS “Evening News” gave the network a chance to highlight multiple dangers. Flooding in Massachusetts served as a perfect backdrop for reporter Sharyn Alfonsi, who said the water was so bad “they’re rescuing the rescuers.” The reason? The firefighter she interviewed “lives down river from the Spigot Falls Dam,” which she warned could collapse.

     Alfonsi then transitioned to more threats to America’s dams. She interviewed engineer Scott Cahill, who “fixes dams for a living and he figures to be busy for a long time.” According to the report, a study from the American Society of Civil Engineers “found the nation’s dams are in disrepair and dangerous.” The report didn’t mention anything about dam removal.

     At the same time, other threats from terror or poor maintenance also gained network notice. Reporters even acknowledged that America’s dams were major achievements. The Hoover Dam was considered one of the possible choices for the Seven Modern Wonders of the World on the Oct. 27, 2006, “Good Morning America.”

     CBS reporter Bill Geist highlighted the Hoover Dam during a story about a major convention in nearby Las Vegas. His Aug. 13, 2006, “Sunday Morning” story summed up the importance of the dam: “where would Las Vegas be without Hoover Dam to provide water?” While he ignored the fact that the dam also provides enough power for 1.3 million people in Nevada, Arizona and California, that was as good as it got for dams on the networks in 13 months.

     Nearly all of the stories made no connection between dams and power generation. The few that did downplayed the significance. ABC’s “Nightline” analyzed life in Aspen, Colo., and how the resort town was coping with the possibility of global warming. The June 30, 2006, story mentioned the various ways the residents were changing their habits, including restarting the old hydroelectric plant “that was originally powering the entire town,” according to one resident.

     NBC ran two May 20, 2006, stories on China’s new Three Gorges Dam that included power generation as a major feature of the facility. However, reporter Charles Sabine was quick to downplay that on “Saturday Today.” “But one of the biggest failings of the dam is, ironically, China's phenomenal rate of growth, so fast that by 2020 the dam will supply less than 2 percent of its energy needs.” Sabine treated 2 percent of a large nation’s energy need as a minor thing.


     The battle for power isn’t limited to one or two countries. According to the August 6, 2006, New York Times, Chile faces similar needs for energy – and similar environmentalist obstacles.

     Although the Times admitted Chile’s “weak spot is a lack of domestic energy sources,” environmental groups oppose new dams. “There are so few places on earth with the qualities of the Patagonia region of Chile that it’s really criminal to try to foist this kind of project on the Chilean people in the name of avoiding impending blackouts and that sort of thing,” said Glenn Swikes, Latin American coordinator for the International Rivers Network. Swikes vowed a protracted fight. “This is going to be a long battle, in the trenches, using every legal and political tactic possible.”

     New dams in the United States face a similar fate. In separate reports a year apart, the Los Angeles Times described new dams being fought consistently. In the Feb. 5, 2006, story, the “conservation group American Rivers” was battling a new dam on the Columbia River despite widespread problems of drought. On Feb. 1, 2007, it was the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity opposing a “reservoir, dam and hydroelectric facility in the Santa Ana Mountains to provide power during periods of peak energy use.”

     Even left-wing politicians oppose dam removal in the Hetch Hetchy Valley of California's Yosemite National Park with an enormous price tag of up to $10 billion, but the battle continues. And the media aren’t exactly on the sidelines. The Sacramento Bee's Tom Philps won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials advocating the dam's removal.

     But billions of dollars don’t matter to eco-extremists. According to the March 31, 2006, USA Today, the Bonneville Power Administration spent $8 billion in failed attempts to help salmon travel in the Snake and Columbia rivers. That’s just the beginning.

     All of this information is available – but only in print. While America’s politicians discuss “energy independence,” so-called environmentalists are actively trying to undermine the power grid – all in the name of salmon.

     This battle has all the elements of a newsworthy story – it’s controversial; it affects tens of thousands of people. Yet the big three broadcast networks continue to ignore the problem.