On The Screen: DamNation

A few weeks ago, I was seeing the border on a little quilt project and wanted some noise on in the background. I browsed Netflix and selected DamNation. It didn’t take long for me to put down the quilt and just watch the movie.

DamNation discusses the issues associated with the dam removal movement. The centerpiece of the film is the Elwah Dam removal but other major dam removal projects in Oregon and Maine as well as discussion surrounding other dams. I love the Olympic Peninsula so I was particularly interested in the Elwah project. I really am looking forward to finding the time to go up and check out the ecosystem’s recovery progress!

The movie is relatable; filmmakers Matt Stoecker, Travis Rummel, and Ben Knight make the viewer understand the drive behind the movement to remove dams that have a larger negative environmental impact than a positive economic impact. The visuals of dam removal and the restoration of habitats is very impactful.

This movie grabbed me enough that I immediately found a way to insert it into my environmental science class. Perhaps the best endorsement for the film is that my students loved it. It started very positive conversation about how dams fit into our energy future in this country. The video of dam removal seemed particularly impactful.

The movie won awards from SXSW, the Environmental Film Festival in DC, 5Point Film Festival, MountainFILM, Kendal Mountain Film Festival, and more. The accolades are well deserved and this documentary is worthy of viewing by anyone on either side of discussions regarding dams purpose in our society.
All photos courtesy DamNation press page.

On The Page: River Notes

On the plane up to Salt Lake City for the #omnigames I read Wade Davis’ River Notes: A Natural and Human History of the Colorado River. The timing was great: out the window I looked out to an awesome view of the Grand Canyon. As it turns out, we spend quite a bit of time playing in Colorado River basin states plus after reading The Emerald Mile, I realized there was lots to learn about this massive and unique river.

Although River Notes had its share of interesting river tidbits, it was shorter and a lot less comprehensive than I’d hoped for. Davis’ intention seemed to be a plea for better river system policy (a worthy goal!) than documenting the natural and human history of the river.

The Mississippi River is known as “Big Muddy” however historically the Colorado moved a huge amount of sediment to the sea: “The average daily sediment load was five hundred thousand tons, enough to fill a hundred freight trains, each with a hundred cars, with each car bearing a load of two hundred thousand pounds.” Before the construction of the dams, “One hundred seventy million cubic cards of sand and silt” were moved down river—more than “three times the amount of dirt excavated to create the Panama Canal.” The Colorado is not the longest North American river nor does it move the most water but in four hundred miles it drops “some 2,500 feet in elevation, a rate of descent twenty-five times that of the Mississippi.”

I’d read a little bit about the formation of the modern Salton Sea in The Emerald Mile but enjoyed reading more about how in 1905 the flooded Colorado defied the man made structures separating it into its natural channel and the California Development Company’s Alamo Canal. For sixteen months the river flowed into the below sea level depression (an ancient path of the river itself).

As mentioned previously, most of River Notes is a plea to save the Colorado River. Davis discusses the appalling water policy surrounding cattle ranching and meat production (“in California, Arizona, and Nevada, roughly 85 percent of the water allotment goes to agriculture, with roughly half the irrigated land devoted to the raising of meat”). He does note a minor success story in the (very) partial restoration of the Colorado River Delta. “What began in the 1970s as a small island of fertility, fed in part by natural springs, runoff, and storm surges from the sea, has grown a hundredfold to become a lush wetland covering more than forty thousand acres. Land that had been sterile for a half century took but eight years to regenerate.”

On The Page: The Quiet World

I just finished reading The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1978-1960. Weighing in at nearly 500 pages, I was worried that the book would get “old” or too in depth. I was completely wrong!

The Quiet World details the men and women who fought to save Alaska’s wild places from extractive industry (mining, timber, over fishing and hunting). The author, Douglas Brinkley, is clearly a strong environmentalist. There is little sympathy in this book for multiple use or even responsible extractive industry (except for maybe on the part of Native Alaskans). I was able to deal with this bias just fine because, well, it’s just like my own: the short term cost of keeping wilderness wild pays dividends beyond what we can imagine in the future.

The book introduced me to lots of new (to me) names in Alaska’s environmental history but I was most excited to learn more about Gifford Pinchot, William O. Douglas, and Teddy Roosevelt. (Teddy was the focus of Brinkley’s 2009 book The Wilderness Warrior which is going to be one of my next reads!) I found the end of the book a little weak, just stopping with the early 60’s prior to the adoption of the Wilderness Act of 1964, but that was made clear when I read the acknowledgements: the author is writing Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Stewart Udall, and the Modern Environmental Movement 1961-1964. Brinkley is conceiving of The Wilderness Warrior, The Quiet World, and Silent Spring Revolution as being the beginning of a complete series of American Environmental History.

The book was well written, covered a lot of ground, and gave a great background on how we managed to have so much of Alaska preserved in various federal agencies. It also made clear how precarious that protection can be.