Free the river and the salmon come back. It seems so improbable – impossible! – and yet. DamNation captures the relentless beating pulse of thousands of salmon returning against all odds to Washington State’s Elwha River after nearly a century, the year after the removal of the Elwha Dam. It is a miracle.
That miracle is the heart of DamNation, a majestic odyssey across America that delves into a surprising new phenomenon – in the United States they’re tearing down old, obsolete dams and letting the rivers return to nature.
This powerful film, funded by Patagonia Outdoor Clothing founder Yvon Chouinard, has at its core a mission to free the rivers. The film says the US Army Corps of Engineers spent $35-million (US) on the Lower Snake Feasibility Study but decided to keep the four dams on the Lower Snake River, dismissing the opinion of engineer Jim Waddell, who worked on the report. The documentary shows him saying, “These dams are a travesty. They always have been.”
The line between film and filmmaker blurs as directors Ben Knight and Travis Rummel step out from behind the camera and become part of the film. For example, Knight dons camouflage gear and lurks in a hunting blind to film the demise of the White Salmon River’s Condit Dam. Knight’s unassuming voice notes the
dam only generated power equal to three windmills. Throughout, the film weaves a rich diversity of research and history into a story as powerful as the rivers themselves.
What was lost as the waters rose after the dams were built? The greatest Indian fishing grounds in North America, at what was the Columbia River’s roaring Celilo Falls, is now a placid pool of water. The film shows scenes of activist/singer Katie Lee posing nude in the 1950s in the wondrous Glen Canyon, now swallowed by Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam.
The message is not that all dams are bad, just that a dam that has been there for 100 years does not necessarily need to be there for 100 more. The film quotes Dan Beard, the Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner who wrote in 1995, “The era of dams is over.”
The era of dam removal has begun. It’s something to consider as BC plans to build the Site C dam on the Peace River in the North.
If there’s one point this film makes, it’s that there is always something vital that is lost when the waters rise. Is what we lose worth what is gained?
DamNation, Ben Knight and Travis Rummel (directors). A Stoecker Ecological and Felt Soul Media Production, presented by Patagonia.
Buy the film at damnationfilm.com or watch it on Netflix.
Kimberley Fehr is a freelance copywriter and communications consultant who has won awards for report, travel and fiction writing. She specializes in corporate and organizational storytelling and believes life is always better in a canoe. www.kimberleyfehr.ca