Towering walls of ambition, steel, and concrete, dams have generated power, moderated rivers’ flow, and have dramatically altered aquatic ecosystems the world over.
Through the years, National Geographic has covered dams’ complexities: the environmental risks they pose; how they can help and hurt human communities; and what happens when people decide to tear down a dam. Here are some of our favorite recent stories about the megastructures:
A Dam’s Explosive End
After nearly a century of bottling up Washington State’s White Salmon River, explosives disabled the Condit Dam on October 26, 2011, freeing in a flash millions of gallons of water and roughly 700 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of silt. Cameras captured the river’s dramatic liberation in this time-lapse video, which National Geographic first published two days after the dam fell.
According to a 2016 feature in the Washington newspaper The Columbian, the White Salmon River community is adjusting to life without the hydroelectric dam. Planted trees are taking root in former lakebed; once-lakeside cabins have now grappled with the plunging water table and shifting slopes. Rafting outfitters and recreational kayakers have flourished.
What’s more, the river’s fish have begun rebounding: Spring chinook steelhead have shown signs of recolonizing the waters upriver of the old dam site.
A Once-Dammed River Recovers
In August 2014, workers removed the final part of the Glines Canyon Dam, which once towered 210 feet tall, blocking off the Elwha River in northwestern Washington State. In the years since, salmon returned to the Elwha after nearly a century of absence, and other fish and marine creatures are thriving.
In a 2016 interview with National Geographic, Anne Shaffer—a marine biologist with the Washington-based nonprofit Coastal Watershed Institute—noted that the changes aren’t solely beneficial to the river channel itself; they also help the environment just offshore of river deltas.
“A river system is often the primary source of sediments, which define and build the nearshore habitat, and nutrients and wood, which support life,” she said. “When you throw in a couple of dams, you create a fish passage barrier and you lock up sediment and wood...so the Elwha nearshore has been starved for a hundred years, and it was significantly impaired.” (Read more about how removal of the Glines Canyon Dam has improved nearby habitats.)
The Tale of the 'Desert Goddess'
When southern Utah’s Glen Canyon Dam was approved in April 1956, the site was intended to be a compromise—a remote plug in the upper Colorado River meant to generate power, moderate the river’s flow, and prevent the need to build dams in more publicly treasured environmental sites.
However, the Glen Canyon Dam’s Lake Powell reservoir threatened to flood more than 250 culturally significant sites and 125 side canyons, sparking a massive effort among archeologists and river runners to document the river’s cultural and natural heritage. One of those river runners, the folk singer and starlet-turned-activist Katie Lee, would become known as the “desert goddess.”
In this excerpt from the award-winning documentary DamNation, filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel interview Lee, who is now in her 90s. She reminisces about walking naked through the enchanting landscape—"It was absolutely the most natural thing in the world"—and the significance of what was lost in the flood. "I don't think Eden could have touched Glen Canyon," she says.
DamNation was produced by Matt Stoecker and Patagonia, and the full-length film can be seen through Vimeo on Demand. (See more from National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase.)
Brian Howard contributed reporting.