Your city or town probably either has a large, brand-new hydropower dam or you know of an old one, located on the outskirts; a crumbling relic from an earlier period in your state’s history. I know this because according to the national nonprofit conservation organization American Rivers, on average our country has constructed one dam every day since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers counts approximately 75,000 dams that are greater than six feet along the waterways of the United States. In addition, there are at least tens of thousands of smaller dams spanning our rivers and streams.
Whichever version of the structure is in your area, it seems that dams divide us. While some regard them as a clean energy source, others view them as a danger to river otters and fish populations.
So, are our dams good for the environment, or a threat to wildlife?
The Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park was once described by naturalist John Muir as, “A grand landscape garden, one of nature’s rarest and most precious mountain mansions.”
But in 1913, the U.S. Congress authorized the city of San Francisco to construct a dam and reservoir on the Tuolumne River in Hetch Hetchy to ensure that San Francisco would have a dependable water supply. It is said that the act broke John Muir’s heart, and some have even suggested that this great sadness hastened his death in 1914. By 1923, the dam was completed and the valley was flooded under several hundred feet of water.
Today, the Hetch Hetchy Valley, like many of America’s natural landscapes, is at the center of a restoration debate. But is trying to turn back the clock on natural areas we altered long ago the best way to spend environmental funds, especially in these cash-strapped times? Or would working to protect those wild places we still have in their original state be a better use of scant resources?