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Why The U.S. Is Starting To Blow Up Old Dams

As tens of thousands of dams start to reach the end of their lifetimes, people have realized they aren’t worth the costs. Enter 800 pounds of explosives.

Why The U.S. Is Starting To Blow Up Old Dams
[Image: Hoover dam via Shutterstock]

One hundred years ago, dams were seen as examples of great design and celebrated for making it possible to get cheap power and turn sprawling deserts into green suburbs and farms.

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Now, as tens of thousands of dams start to reach the end of their lifetimes, attitudes have dramatically shifted: People are realizing that many dams don’t actually work that well, and they’ve destroyed river ecosystems. The new solution, at least in some places, is packing old dams with dynamite and obliterating them.

A documentary called DamNation takes a look at the story of dams in the United States, from the building boom of the 20th century to the beginning of the removal boom today, complete with spectacular footage of a dam blowing up with 800 pounds of explosives. Filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel got in a rented camper van in the summer of 2011 and started to drive around the country looking at some of the 75,000 larger dams.

The filmmakers worked with biologist Matt Stoecker and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, who originally came up with the idea for the movie; Patagonia produced it and has been screening it at their retail stores as part of a long-standing push for dam removal.

“Dams tend to be part of the landscape that you just don’t notice,” says Rummel. “But once you start paying attention, you start seeing them everywhere.”

Though dams were built for a variety of reasons–a small fraction generate power, and others were meant to help with preventing floods, storing water, or providing irrigation–the film explains that most are incredibly expensive to maintain for the value they provide. Billions of dollars have been spent just on trying to save the salmon that can no longer travel upstream because of them.

As the huge concrete structures start to reach the stage where they’d need major renovations to keep operating, many dam operators are deciding it makes more sense to tear them down. The filmmakers hope to help that process along.

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“We’re really just asking people to rethink their relationship to rivers,” Rummel says. “We’re not asking to tear down every dam, but just to go back into your watershed and look at it with a critical eye, maybe for the first time.”

“Like all constructed things, dams have a finite lifetime,” says University of Washington Professor David Montgomery, in the film. “It’s not time to pull out every dam in the country; that would be economically foolish. But it would be just as foolish not to rethink even dam in the country, and try and decide which are the ones that actually still make sense in the 21st century.”

The full documentary is available on Vimeo on Demand.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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