July 22, 2023
As I suspect is the case with many fly anglers, my relationship with dams is decidedly mixed. I know well the loss of salmon and steelhead in my local Idaho rivers, largely due to dams on the lower Snake. I also spend an awful lot of time fishing tailwaters.
Wading into the cold, clear waters below a dam, casting to big trout during a blizzard hatch, it's almost easy to forget the havoc wrought by hydropower projects. Almost. And after reading Steven Hawley's Cracked: The Future of Dams in a Hot, Chaotic World, the ecological and cultural destruction of dams becomes impossible to ignore.
Hawley, an environmental writer and filmmaker, calls Cracked a “speed date with the history of water control.” I don't know if this book is so much a “date” as it is a detailed account of a highly dysfunctional relationship: that between our society and dams. As with many dysfunctional relationships, there are a lot of unkept promises and bad behaviors. And we too often accept the excuses, because of unfounded fears of what happens if dams leave our lives.
The speed date reference aside, this is a highly comprehensive look at the history of dams, their current impacts, and what a future with fewer dams might look like. Hawley describes the costs of dams—and they are many, and often severe—in meticulous detail.
In the early part of the 20th century, a dam-building frenzy swept the United States. It was undertaken with the best of intentions and was arguably necessary for economic progress. But as the American West faces a hotter, drier future, can these dams really be justified? Hawley builds a convincing case that the answer is a firm “no.”
When many of us think of destructive dams, we envision the salmon-blocking structures on the lower Snake River (and this dam complex is covered thoroughly in the book). But the sheer scope of dams across North America can be difficult to comprehend.
“The more than ninety thousand dams on the American landscape can't reasonably be blamed for destroying the nation's biological inheritance,” he writes. “But they play, even for such gargantuan structures, an outsized role in that destruction.”
That's right: 90,000 dams exist in this country. (And that just counts dams 15 feet or higher. If you count smaller dams, there are likely more than a million). This love affair with dams is being exported to other regions around the globe. One observer notes that dams have become a default solution for any freshwater challenge: “If there's a problem, there's a dam to fix it.”
As evidence of this, even many conservation groups tout dams as a climate change solution. (Hawley debunks this notion as well.)
Learning the litany of dam transgressions can make for gloomy reading, but fortunately Hawley also offers solutions. Perhaps most useful is a chapter offering a comprehensive “citizen's guide to dam removal.” I especially appreciated that he included advice for how to determine if a dam should be targeted for removal. With thousands of dams across our waterways, not all are coming down (and I'd still argue, not all should come down). But there are a significant number of dams that are obsolete, unsafe, or have outsized ecological and cultural impacts.
Once a dam is identified, Hawley then walks the reader through the process of removal, from building citizen support to negotiating the complex permitting processes associated with dam relicensing.
Dam operators spend a lot on convincing people (including anglers) that these structures are necessary. They paint pictures of the dystopian future that awaits if a dam—any dam—is removed. And many people, used to a local dam, are anxious about the unknown. But Hawley shares stories of what really happens when dams are removed. Examples like the Penobscot demonstrate that dam removal is almost never a pessimistic tale, but rather one of community revitalization, restored migratory fish runs, and improved recreational experiences.
With dams now appearing on many of the world's great river basins, from the Amazon to the Congo, Hawley also shares examples of regions where citizens are preventing unnecessary hydropower. These examples include Patagonia and the Blue Heart of Europe (the lair of marbled trout and huchen), both places near to the hearts of fly anglers.
Cracked can be a challenging book, and I mean that in a positive way. It forces us to take off our rose-colored glasses. For many of us, tailwaters are an essential part of our sport. We wade into them and see lots of mayflies and lots of trout, and convince ourselves that all is well. It's the textbook case of what ecologists call shifting baseline syndrome: the conditions we're born into and the conditions we're used to are what we consider to be “normal.”
Cracked allows us to see that our baseline—even when it's a beautiful tailwater—is not “normal.” We are experiencing degraded rivers and lost freshwater diversity, largely due to dams. Dam removal represents not a loss to fly fishers, but a chance to reclaim richer, more resilient rivers.
Cracked: The Future of Dams in a Hot, Chaotic World by Steven Hawley. Patagonia, 2023, 321 pages, $28 hardcover printed on 100% post-consumer waste paper, ISBN 978-1938340772.