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Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.

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What’s Our Dam Problem?

9/19/2011 4:10:38 PM

Tags: dams, rivers, wilderness, wildlife, international, conservation, environment, World Rivers Review, Keith Goetzman

Lower Elwha dam

We’ve learned, time and time again, that damming rivers causes all sorts of problems for both nature and society—and yet we keep building dams all over the world. World Rivers Review, the quarterly magazine of the advocacy group International Rivers, reports on the state of the world’s free-flowing rivers—those that remain, that is:

Of the world’s 177 largest rivers, only one-third are free flowing, and just 21 rivers longer than 1,000 kilometers retain a direct connection to the sea. Damming has led to species extinctions, loss of prime farmland and forests, social upheaval, loss of clean water supplies, dessicated wetlands, destroyed fisheries and more. …

Unfortunately, the nations building the most dams—India, China, and Brazil—do not have legislation to protect the free-flowing status of their rivers, and are not using the laws they do have to protect important rivers.

Writer Parineeta Dandekar singles out for praise Canada’s Heritage Rivers System, Australia’s Wild Rivers Act, Sweden’s National Rivers program, and the United States’ Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, suggesting that river advocates in other nations emulate these examples to keep their remaining rivers undammed and undeveloped:

Free-flowing rivers have become so rare that they would be classified as an endangered species if they were considered living things rather than merely support systems for all living things.

Here in the United States, we’ve learned a few lessons the hard way—our favorite method, it seems—and have been dismantling some particularly destructive dams in recent years. In fact, the largest dam removal in U.S. history has begun on the Elwha River in Washington state. High Country News reports on the Elwha restoration in its brand-new issue, and the Los Angeles Times offers a cool interactive visualization of the deliberately slow process of taking down the Glines Canyon dam.

Sources: World Rivers Review, High Country News (story available only to subscribers), Los Angeles Times 

Image by brewbooks, licensed under Creative Commons. 



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