Earlier this week, Linda Church Ciocci of the National Hydropower Association sent a letter to the editor of The New York Times arguing against Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s points presented in his op-ed published May 7. Linda’s letter is available here and we wanted to take a moment to respond to her points on our blog:
The environmental costs of massive dams that support hydropower generation outweigh their benefits. We do not agree that hydroelectric power generation is a “low-emission” and “renewable” source of energy as more studies are showing that dams and their reservoirs are significant emitters of greenhouse gases worldwide, while also exacerbating the negative impacts of climate change.
Arguing that hydropower is “clean” completely misses the immense environmental costs of stopping up a free-flowing river, which blocks wildlife migration for keystone species like salmon, degrades water quality and stops critical sediment flows to our disappearing coastlines.
Hydropower is made possible by dams, and dams create devastating impacts on the surrounding ecosystem, which relies on fish for food and to spread nutrients. These impacts run the length of the river to the ocean, where sediments are needed to protect against rising sea levels and storm surges caused by climate change.
Patagonia, by supporting DamNation, is focusing attention on a growing national movement to remove dams where the costs (including environmental, safety and socio-cultural) outweigh the replaceable benefits (including hydropower, flood control, irrigation or recreation) – or where the dam no longer serves any useful purpose. Many dams also pose a serious safety hazard. Currently, 26,000 dams are officially labeled either “high hazard” or “significant hazard” by the federal government.
Removing the many dams that have low value but high costs, like the four problematic lower dams on the Snake River, will help restore water quality and flows for fish and wildlife, reinstate the natural sediment and nutrient flow, eliminate safety risks, create opportunities for whitewater recreation, save taxpayer money and bring our rivers back to life.
Unfortunately, that’s not true. Contrary to repeated statements from federal agencies, and hydropower advocates, most wild Snake River salmon and steelhead returns remain at about the same levels as when they were first listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the early 1990’s and at only a fraction of their pre-dam populations. The last couple of years have shown some minor increases in overall fish numbers – especially compared to the dismal returns we’ve seen lately – but around 80 percent of these returns are hatchery fish, not wild ones. Flooding watersheds with hatchery fish costs the taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars annually on the Columbia River alone – it does not constitute “significant strides to mitigate” dams or even recovery goals for wild fish.
The most viable sites have already been developed. Most of those few remaining sites have been targets of repeated permits or license applications met with multiple failures due to poor economics, impractical technology, and the high cost of environmental damage.
The bottom line is that our country has no rivers left for dam building. The Department of Energy report didn’t assess the feasibility for building dams, just the potential for electrical generation present on a stretch of river based on computer modeling.
Rather than plugging rivers with multiple hydropower dams, or modifying current dams, a cheaper and less environmentally harmful solution is to transition away from dams and towards existing, lower impact, energy efficiency and production technologies. Many dams that have been removed no longer had any beneficial use whatsoever.
The hydropower industry has worked hard to draw attention to the benefits of hydropower, but they of course neglect the major costs of dams. We’ve glorified dams for decades, but our pride in building these engineering marvels has often blinded us to the environmental damage they cause.
We made DamNation to educate Americans about the downside of this mislabeled “green” energy. Rather than plugging rivers with multiple hydropower dams, a cheaper and less environmentally harmful solution is to use existing energy efficiency technologies and lower impact production sources. Flood control can often be accomplished more effectively and for less money by restoring floodplains, maintaining riparian buffers, and enabling high flow capture into off-stream basins. Updating antiquated irrigation systems and replacing inappropriate crops dramatically reduces the need for dams and reservoirs in the arid West.
Removing the many dams that have low value but high costs, like the four problematic lower dams on the Snake River, will restore water quality and flows for fish and wildlife, reinstate the natural sediment and nutrient flow, eliminate safety risks, create opportunities for whitewater recreation, save taxpayer money and bring our rivers back to life.
We believe all man-made dams create a negative impact on river ecosystems, but our efforts are focused on removing the many dams with low value and high environmental costs.
Yes, we do use hydropower – it’s an inseparable part of our shared electrical gird. But at every turn we are focused on reducing our energy need through efficiency measures, and gaining a higher proportion of power from truly renewable sources like solar and wind, where environmental impacts of generation do not outweigh the benefits.