Un-damming Our Nation: Matt Stoecker’s Campaign to Restore America’s Ecosystems

Matt Stoecker wants to blow things up. Namely he wants to take down the obsolete concrete structures holding our river ecosystems hostage. A biologist, photographer, and activist, Stoecker’s latest call to action is the film DamNation, which he conceived with Yvon Chouinard and co-produced for Patagonia with Felt Soul Media—he also shot the underwater footage. The documentary tells the story of thousands of US dams, that should be removed because they are outdated, unsafe, and cost taxpayers millions. DamNation is now available for screening on Netflix.

Let’s start with the basics. Why are dams bad?
Dams are bad for a bunch of reasons. They block the flow of water, but also of nutrients up and downstream on rivers across the country. They block the sediment—silt, sand, gravel, cobbles—from flowing downstream to feed our coastal wetlands and our marine environments. That impacts not just ecosystems, but also on impacts caused by climate change. We’re seeing sea levels rise even faster than projected a decade ago. One of the only real sustainable ways to address that is to restore the flow of sediment to the coast. That enables beaches, barrier islands, and coastal wetlands to build up and grow, along with sea level rise and protection of coastal communities.

In the opposite direction, dams block the flow of nutrients in the form of sea-run fish, like salmon, steelhead, river herring, sturgeon, eel, and other species that migrate between freshwater and the ocean. The health of forests way inland, for example, in the Rocky Mountains depends on the millions of salmon that swim into the Columbia River and up hundreds of miles into Idaho, spreading nutrients from the sea throughout the whole upper Snake River watershed. At least 137 species depend on Pacific salmon alone for part of their diet, from redwood trees to orcas, grizzlies to ospreys. I don’t think we’ve fully come to realize the massive impact of severing that connection between the land and the ocean.

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Do you see any pros for having dams?
Not in the long-term. Dams were built for some beneficial uses and have been a really important part of our country growing. But for all those uses they were built for, we now have less harmful alternatives that make a lot more sense. So dams are just a really outdated, destructive technology.

The myth out there is that dams provide clean power. It’s [a story] being told by energy companies. They make the argument from the standpoint of carbon emissions. But a dam is similar to a coal-fired power plant when you consider implications on water quality and impacts on entire watersheds. Coal-fired power plants have obvious negative impacts to air quality and climate change by releasing greenhouse gases. Dams have that same impact on a river by degrading water quality, habitat conditions, and ecosystem health.

Further, more studies are coming out showing that the dams are actually a major culprit in the greenhouse gas emission scenario; and worldwide, dams and reservoirs are one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. So the argument that dams provide clean hydropower has no legs. It’s great to see some states and investment portfolios dropping hydro dams from their list of renewable energy sources.

Dams and reservoirs are also a terribly inefficient long-term water storage proposition. They lose storage capacity every year due to sedimentation filling in the reservoir, and the huge reservoir surface area evaporates more water than is actually used in many cases. Water efficiency measures, conservation, regionally appropriate crop selection, and groundwater recharge and storage are far more efficient options without the negative environmental, economic, and societal impacts.

Before seeing DamNation we knew little about dams. In the film, Ben Knight, one of the directors, says the same thing. Why aren’t more people talking about the issues surrounding dams?
There are over 85,000 dams in the US. Just about everybody in our country lives within a couple miles of multiple dams. If you look at a map, they’re everywhere. But a lot of people assume that having a big body of water is a good thing. To get people aware and excited about rivers and to show the amazing recovery of a river after dam removal are things that words don’t really work that well for. Blowing up a dam is this amazing event that instantly transforms a river’s future. Visually it’s such an incredible thing to see, which is why Yvon and I decided to make this film. Actually, (laughs) when we first approached [director] Travis Rummel about making the film with us, he looked at us like we were crazy and thought it was a boring topic. Travis and Ben turned it down at first.

The film said that out of the 85,000 dams that are around, only about 2,500 of them produce hydropower. Why do we have so many dams?
The three main things that dams have been built for in our country are power, water storage, and flood protection. For example, in the deserts of the Southwest, with a lot of dams there, there’s no intent to provide any hydropower. They were built to store water for irrigation and for potable water supply. Some of them were just built for recreation or stock ponds for ranching. On the Columbia system, which is in the wetter Northwest, a lot of those dams were built specifically for hydropower, and some of those dams had a very important part in building all the planes and other military equipment for World War II.

Is the hope that all the obsolete dams at this point will eventually be removed?
Yes. Along with Patagonia and the river conservation group Save Our Wild Salmon, we developed a national call to action [www.change.org/petitions/president- barack-obama-crack-down-on-deadbeat-dams]. It’s focused around removing the four lower Snake River dams. But the call to action letter is also asking Obama to crack down on deadbeat dams across the country. So the intro to the letter lays out that we’ve got a lot of dams that serve zero function and are obsolete. Many of them are safety hazards and it’s time for the federal government to take them out. The letter goes into more detail on the need to remove the four lower Snake River dams, because they are the most important federally owned and controlled opportunity to restore large self-sustainable runs of wild salmon. The Columbia system historically had the biggest salmon run in our country, so it should be a source of national pride and a focus in restoring that watershed.

What were the challenges in doing this film that you didn’t foresee when you started working on it?
When Yvon and I decided to make the film, we sat down and wrote out what we wanted [from it]. The main objective was to have it be seen by as many people as possible and to grow this budding dam removal movement. Early on, we identified a lot of dams that we have supported removing, were coming out, or that we wanted to see come out. The list was initially (laughs) a few dozen different dam removal stories. The biggest challenge was to narrow that down to just a handful of stories, characters, and dam issues. It was frustrating because there were so many good stories I wanted to tell, but the most powerful stories rose to the top and we’re all pretty proud of how it turned out.

One of the most emotional moments in DamNation was seeing the Elwha River Native American community talking about their history and relationship to salmon—how the species is so sacred to them. It seems like many of these dams affected Native American communities profoundly.
Yeah, a lot of the Native American tribes were focused around these runs of salmon that provided sustenance throughout the year. [Sea-run fish] really were the absolute central focus and means of sustaining many of these tribes throughout the year. Not surprisingly, where there were these salmon runs, there were also rivers that had the potential to be harnessed for hydropower. If some of these dams were proposed now there’s no way they would be built—it would be viewed as cultural genocide in a lot of cases.

In DamNation we thought it was important to capture the cultural issues that come from [building] dams, even the non-salmon bearing rivers, like Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, which submerged hundreds of cultural sites. Dam construction has done that all over the country: submerging Natives Americans’ important cultural sites. The impacts aren’t just where the dams are, they spread up and down the whole watershed. So for Native cultures, a dam that might be hundreds of miles up or downstream from them has a huge impact. Dozens of tribes are affected by one—or a couple—dams.

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Salmon are talked about a lot in the story of dams, but there’s also this focus on steelhead trout. Why are they so important to the bigger picture?
Steelhead are hands-down the most revered fish to catch on a fly rod in North America. There are a lot of passionate people that have gotten the fishing bug because of steelhead trout. So when you talk about salmon you’re often talking about sustenance and economic benefits for commercial fishers and benefits to the ecosystem. Steelhead, while they have these same benefits, also have this additional importance among recreational river fishers. Like the guy Lee, in [DamNation] who sits on an Oregon stream and watches and protects those steel-head. He’s evolved from being super-passionate about fishing for them to not necessarily wanting to catch them anymore, just wanting to be in their presence.

Unlike some salmon species, steelhead live throughout a watershed year-round—for several years in many cases—before they head out to the ocean. Because they utilize the entire watershed, they are dependent upon healthy flows and habitat within that watershed. If you have a healthy steelhead population, that’s a sign that the watershed is healthy enough to support them. That means that all these other native species will have the habitat and water quality they need to survive as well. To achieve successful ecosystem restoration it’s really important to identify indicator species. It’s less about restoring steelhead and more about using steelhead restoration as a means of restoring and monitoring a watershed and the larger ecosystem’s health.

Do you fish?
I got into the work I do now because my brothers and I growing up were complete fishing fanatics. I was a fly fishing guide after college in Alaska and Mongolia. Since then I’ve really evolved into focusing on restoring and protecting these wild fisheries I love, and not fishing a whole lot. For the past decade I’ve been more excited about putting on a diving mask, snorkel, and some fins and swimming around with wild trout and salmon. Getting underwater and taking photos and shooting video of these iconic fish in their natural habitat is what I’m more passionate about now. Making this film was a way to bring the viewers underwater with me to soak in the beauty of wild fish and free-flowing rivers.

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How did you get into dam removal activism?
The dam that got me inspired to work on dam removals is on my home stream called Searsville Dam that Stanford University owns. I’ve been fighting to get it removed for 16 years now. A lot of people think of [Stanford] as one of our nation’s most progressive universities, yet they’ve got this destructive dam that they don’t need. At the same time, they’re claiming that they’re a green, sustainable university—but they have an obsolete dam blocking threatened steelhead and degrading an entire watershed. So I started a coalition called Beyond Searsville Dam and we have over 30 partner organizations. We’ve pushed for Stanford to undertake alternative studies, including dam removal, and they are expected to make a decision about the future of the dam by the end of this year.

There are dams that are up for removal, but then there are dams that haven’t been built yet, like this big proposal on Alaska’s Susitna River, a 735-foot, $5.2 billion structure. But is this just a US issue?
In China and India, down in South America— really all over the place—there are huge mega-dam proposals being built right now. There are a lot of protests being led by indigenous cultures: people physically fighting and being harassed, trying to stop dams from inundating their homes and territory. Our friends in Alaska are fighting their own state government over the most ridiculous dam proposal our country has seen in decades. Fortunately, a definitive new study by Oxford University just came out which assessed the economics of past large dam construction projects. They concluded that large dams are totally uneconomical and that project costs end up being nearly double the original estimate.

We’re a few steps ahead, or a few decades ahead of a lot of these other countries that are making the same mistakes we already made. A lot of countries would say we’re being hypocritical about trying to stop them from building dams, because look what we’ve done—we’ve dammed our whole country. But the hope was that by focusing on the US [in DamNation] we’d be able to show the history of dam-building here. Yeah, we did it, we went crazy, we took it way too far, and now look where we are. We’re spending all this money trying to undo the damage now. Hopefully that will inspire other countries not to build dams and also to take dams out that they built.

So basically, the US is the case study showing what not to do.
Exactly! We’re trying to say: We did it. We acknowledge that. And look at the mess it caused. Save yourself.

Photos from top: Wildly controversial, a November 2012 ballot initiative that aims to study the potential removal of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley will be in the hands of San Francisco voters, 2013. Photo: Jim Hurst; Salmon jumping on the Elwha River past the former Elwha Dam. Photo: Matt Stoecker; Matt Stoecker filming salmon underwater for DamNation below the former Elwha Dam. Photo: Ben Knight