The modern day dam busters

While the plucky, scientist and inventor Barns Wallace made an excellent dam buster in Second World War with his bouncing bomb, it’s peace time now so modern dam busters are embracing communications instead of 9,000 pounds of explosives.

Dams have been a bête noire for conservationists for decades, but some now think the time has come to take them down and restore rivers back to their former glory. This is good news for the steelhead which have acquired some powerful conservationist friends keen on destroying the key obstacles blocking their progress upstream.

Their first (and dare I say highly photogenic) friend is Matt Stoeker, a fly fisherman and conservation biologist, who explains in this profile video why the steelhead (a rainbow trout that goes out to the ocean and then returns to the freshwater stream where they were born to spawn) is so important. He calls it an “umbrella” species because it’s migratory, using the whole watershed to live.

He says in Southern California, where there were once thousands of steelhead, there are now 500 adult steelhead returning. And he points to dams as a key obstacle blocking their access to the mountains.

It turns out he is well connected, being the son in law of Patagonia founder and owner Yvon Chouinard. They are both avid fly fishermen and both of them are on a mission to decommission dams and restore rivers in America. In fact Chouinard proclaimed that he was a “dam buster” in an American Express commercial broadcast to 41 million viewers during the 2010 Academy Awards.

Now they’ve come up with the idea for DamNation a feature documentary film, to be released in 2013, which will outline the current movement to dismantle outdated dams across the United States.

According to the film’s blog, the DamNation film will profile the largest dam removal in history. Completed in 2011, the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams in and near Olympic National Park is a great example to pick as they needed to retire. The Elwha was built in 1913. Towards the end of its life (in 2011), it only produced a fraction of the electricity needed and most of its machinery needed replacement. It also stopped most of the salmon from reaching their spawning grounds.

The Olympic National Park’s Dam Removal blog has pictures of the dam being removed, historical photos and even some good videos on the removal and restoration process (my son particularly liked the one with the yellow diggers – well done for remembering your 4-year-old audience too when considering film subject matter guys!). They also have a Facebook page.

The good news is that salmon fry are already hatching above the dam.

Chouinard and Stoeker are also part of the Matilija dam removal project, and the Matilija Coalition behind it. The steelhead can also count guerilla graffiti artists who painted a giant pair of scissors on the face of the 200-foot Matilija dam as their friends. But, despite the publicity stunt and the support of prominent environmentalists, this dam removal isn’t going as smoothly.

While there is support for tearing the dam down, there are questions about what to do with the fine particles of sediment that have built up in the reservoir behind the dam, and the small matter of $140 million needed to get it dismantled.  

While the main problems hampering this are technical, it’s also interesting that the Coalition has a pretty simple website and no obvious social media presence.

It also begs the question as to whether or not anyone considered the costs of decommissioning dams before they were commissioned in the first place, and, if they had, whether it would have made any economic sense to build them.

The main problems facing the Matilija dam – the reservoir is now very shallow and warm and mostly filled with sediment – are faced by many dams over time. Fred Pearce points to these problems – their limited shelf life and the perils of using big engineering solutions to manager water supply – in his book When the river runs dry.

Given that the steelhead almost magically finds its way to the one river where it was born to spawn two or three years after being out at sea and, given the many obstacles along the way (including near insurmountable dams), it deserves some friends.

Hopefully the steelhead’s new friends will prove effective in their dam busting battle. At least if the new dam busters feel the need for a theme tune they need look no further than the Dam Buster’s March.

Getting sick of me talking about fish and all things aquatic? Must be something in the air… I promise I’ll move onto a new nature subject soon…