What Is A Dam? A dam is a structure, often quite large, built across a river to retain its flow of water in a reservoir for various purposes, most commonly hydropower. In the U.S. there are over 90,000 dams over 6 feet tall, according to American Rivers. In 2015 half of Earth’s major rivers contained around 57,000 large dams, according to International Rivers. Dams are complicated. This blog presents a look at some of the benefits, consequences and impacts of dams, along with NWNL photographs of North American and African dams in our case-study watersheds.
Danger sign at the Waneta Dam in the Columbia River Basin (2007)
Atchafalaya Old River Low Sill Control Structure, Louisiana (2011)
The slowing or diversion of river flows caused by dams – and related “control structures” – can have severe environmental impacts. Many species that reside in rivers rely on a steady flow for migration, spawning and healthy habitats. Altered river flows can disorient migrating fish and disrupt reproduction cycles needing natural seasonal flows.
Aerial views of Chief Joseph Dam in the Columbia River Basin (2007)
The introduction of a dam into a river creates a reservoir by halting a river’s flow. This can severely impact the quality of water. Still water can cause water temperatures to increase. Resulting abnormal temperatures can negatively affect species; cause algae blooms; and decrease oxygen levels.
Juvenile fish bypass at the McNary Dam in the Columbia River Basin (2007)
Aerial view of the construction site of Gibe III Dam in the Omo River (2007)
Bryan Jones, featured in Patagonia’s documentary “Dam Nation,” discussed today’s situation with four aging dams on the Lower Snake River (authorized in 1945) in his 2014 NWNL Interview: “We used science then available to conquer and divide our river systems with dams. But today we can look at them and say, ‘Well-intentioned, but it didn’t really work out the way we would’ve liked it to.'” Dams that may have been beneficial at one point in history must be constantly reassessed and taken down when necessary to restore river and riparian ecosystems and species. Some compare dams to humans, since they too have a limited life span of about 70-100 years.
Small dam across the White Nile River in Uganda (2010)
Construction of the Bujagali Dam on the White Nile River in Uganda (2010)
There are well-intended reasons to build dams. In the US, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has listed the values of dams on their website. Those benefits include recreation, flood control, water storage, electrical generation and debris control. These benefits are explained on the FEMA website.
Danger sign at the Guntersville Dam, Tennessee River Basin (2013)
Parker Dam (a hydrodam) on the Colorado River, Southern California (2015)
Between 1998 and 2000, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) established the most comprehensive guidelines for dam building, reviewing 1,000 dams in 79 countries in two years. Their framework for decision-making is based on recognizing rights of all interested parties and assessing risks. Later, the European Union adopted this framework, stating that carbon credits from large dams can only be sold on the European market if the project complies with the WCD framework.
Many conflicts swirl around the impacts, longevity and usefulness of dams. NWNL continues to study dam benefits versus their impacts, including removal of indigenous residents in order to establish reservoirs; disruption of the downstream water rights and needs of people, species and ecosystems; and relative efficiencies of hydropower versus solar and wind. Dam-building creates consequences. Native Americans studied risks of their decisions for seven generations. After the Fukushima tsunami caused the release of radioactive material, Japanese novelist Kazumi Saeki wrote: “People have acquired a desire for technology that surpasses human comprehension. Yet the bill that has come due for that desire is all too dear.”
On March 1, a 65-foot-long crack was found in the hydroelectric #Wanapum Dam in Grant County WA. This dam generates over 4 million megawatt hours annually, providing power to over 45,000 local customers and throughout the Pacific Northwest. The Bonneville Power Administration, now investigating the “risk of failure” presented by this crack, has notified residents downstream of possible evacuation and has closed all nearby boat ramps. (For updates: http://www.grantpud.org/your-pud/media-room/news) The dam’s initial 50-year operating license was granted in 1955 and extended by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2008. However, that approval came with conditions, including modernization of the facility’s power generation capability.
In 2007 a No Water No Life expedition, following the Columbia River from source to sea, visited Wanapum Dam to add to its documentation of the values and the impacts of hydropower. The dam is named for the Wanapum Indians whose tule houses along the Columbia River were flooded by the building of the dam. Respecting the longtime Wanapum residents, the dam also houses the Heritage Center Museum displaying their cultural artifacts and documenting the upstream relocation of the town of Vantage.
The juxtaposition of this large, now-cracked hydrodam and displays of the heritage of Wanapum weavings, moccasins and prayers is a bit ironic. Perhaps lessons can be gained from the traditional values of these “River People” as we consider the risks presented today by infrastructure, industry, machines and our efforts to control nature. The words of Rex Buck, today’s Wanapum leader, are shown at the Heritage Center Museum:
Before the arrival of white man, Native Americans believed that all living things were endowed with spirit. They believed that nature was alive and responsive to their needs for physical and spiritual nourishment. Wisdom was passed from generation to generation in stories that embraced the spiritual characteristics of coyote, bear and all the animals. Native Americans were the sensitive guardians of earth and all living things. The arrival of the fur traders brought a slow and disastrous end to this symbiotic relationship.
In the early 1800’s the Wanapum numbered 2500 to 3000, according to the journals of Lewis and Clark. Historically, the Wanapum have gathered roots from fields above Ephrata (near Soap Lake) down to the Snake River. Until 1956 they had permanent winter villages of A-frames made with mats of tule gathered by the riverbanks, that were stowed during summer months.
In the spring the Wanapum went to Soap Lake to gather fruit. In the summer they fished salmon with 14’ poles, submerged basket traps and torches at night. While drying and storing their salmon, they ate eel and fresh-water mussels. In the fall the women dug for roots which they ate raw, cooked or dried. Into the winter hunted deer, big horn sheep, elk, rabbit and waterfowl.
According to Lenora Seelatsee, their mother was “Earth Woman,” who provided spiritual and physical sustenance and encouraged them to respect nature, peace and cooperation with others. Around 1700 the horse was introduced to this community; and the first impact of Europeans was the introduction of metal and glass beads. Because the Wanapum never went to war with the U. S., there was never a treaty. Thus, they’ve received no recognition, land titles or money from the US government.
Editor and author of Drummers and Dreamers, Click Relander is the only white man buried in the Wanapum cemetery – an expression of their appreciation for his letters during the dam-building agreement requesting that the Wanapum got housing, electricity and jobs. The Public Utility Department (PUD) rebuilt their 10 homes and long house. The US Military still protects the Wanapum cemetery and their root-digging fields per an agreement with the Depart of Energy, downstream at Hanford Nuclear Site. Seven years ago there were only 65 Wanapum left, according to Susan Parker, a Heritage Center docent. That community represented 3 or 4 families on the west side of the Columbia River adjacent to military lands across from Priest Rapids.
In 2007 NWNL spoke with Rex Buck, today’s Wanapum “prophet and spiritual guide.” (The Wanapum had no need for a “chief” because the tribe never fought.) NWNL unfortunately didn’t meet Rex in person because his sister Lenora had died just “three sunrises earlier.” But in a short phone conversation with NWNL, Rex talked of ongoing Wanapum culture and customs, as he explained that the Wanapum honor their deceased by not using their proper name for one year after their death. At the end of that year observance, there is a “Give Away” memorial service that bequeaths the belongings of the deceased.
Today Rex continues to disseminate the spirit of #Smowhalla, the first Wanapum prophet and shaman who is remembered for interpreting his dreams and stressing the importance of sharing with others. The museum displays Smowhalla’s words to his people: “Each one must learn for himself the highest wisdom. It cannot be taught in words.”
As Smowhalla’s current successor, Rex Buck shared ongoing Wanapum wisdom with NWNL, saying, “We have feeling for all this land and to our past.” When asked about the cultural resources of his tribe, Rex answered, “They are further and beyond dictionary definition.” It seems that the Wanapum intertwine cultural resources with natural resources and together both are valued as the Creator’s promise for the future.
Puck Hyah Toot (Johnny Buck) spoke about the Creator’s gifts at the naming of the Wanapum Dam at Public Utilities Department office at Ephrata in May 1955.
The part of the District where we lived the Creator made. He made Earth. He spread upon the Earth things for the Indian people so they could live. He gave them roots and berries, salmon he put in their streams, and caused wild fowl and wild animals to come upon the land. These were the foods the Indian has enjoyed, good food the Creator had given. When I think of losing these things, I think I am losing my life! I do not feel I should get angry or say anything that a dam is being built. I feel that somehow I and my people will get by as long as we have friends like are here. The Creator predicted and directed that the light shall fall upon the earth and give warming light to everything upon it. The sun will brighten and warm the body of the Indian and will preserve that body. You and I get this living under that light. If any person does wrong to another race, the Creator will punish that person. That we believe.
The Wanapum are disappearing. When the dam was built (1959-1963), there were only 5 full-blooded Wanapum. Now there are about 60 Wanapum enrolled and assimilated into the Yakima Nation. But even the family of Rex Buck, today’s Wanapum’s prophet, is not full-blooded. Rex’s mother is from Warm Springs, Oregon, and his wife is a Yakima Indian.
Despite this assimilation, diabetes, alcoholism and epidemics, the messages of these “River People” will survive. But will the natural resources given by their Creator survive? What risks are engendered when dams crack? The Grant County PUD’s policy is to “care for the preservation and conservation of the Collection” of Wanapum cultural resources in its Heritage Museum. Are they also caring for “the preservation and conservation” of our natural resources?
Frank Buck, Rex’s uncle, asked us to share and respect our differing approaches to stewarding water, power, and food needed for all living on shared riverbanks. On June 2, 1962, at the dedication of Priest Dam downstream of Wanapum Dam, Frank Buck shared this perspective:
I have a few words to express about white people. You are glad that this Priest Rapids Dam is finished. You are dedicating it today. We are very glad to be with you here today. This power is very important to you. This power is like food to you. The water that is making this power provides you all the food you need. Your power and my power are two different things. The things that I am showing outside of the teepees (in the village built for the dedication of the dam site), that is the food that we Indians was provided with. That food will take care of us. That food makes me strong and healthy. It is our medicine. Even what law comes against us, we don’t hold it against you. We Indians are still friends with you. You White People, We Indians. It is our thoughts to go together as one on this Earth. We will be taken care of.
This film outlines how Ethiopia’s new Gibe Dams will cause a 70% water-level reduction over the next 3 years – and thus drastically impact Ethiopia’s Omo River, its Lake Turkana terminus in Kenya, and ½ million residents in this Rift Valley’s Cradle of Humankind. These hydro-dams – and the new commercial agricultural plantations they will irrigate – threaten the livelihoods of local indigenous tribes and their ecosystems. The Gibe Dams will also imperil the Omo-Turkana Basin’s migrating birds, fish and crocodile populations, and the scant amount of wildlife left.
The film pleads that water flows be managed so as to maintain the sustainability of the Omo River, Lake Turkana, and today’s indigenous communities who represent 6000 years of self-sustaining flood-recession farmers and fishermen. For more information on the Omo River : Download the factsheet on Gibe III Dam by International Rivers.
ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS FROM NWNL: For many millennia, the Omo’s annual 60 foot floods from the highlands’ monsoonal rains have supplied nutrient-rich silt and irrigation for the crops of the Mursi, Suri, Karo, Hamar, Nyangatom, Dassanech and other
unique indigenous cultures. In a 2008 NWNL interview…. Read the full story here.
Welcome to #10 of 11 blogs written by Alison Jones before her departure to Uganda and Kenya as NWNL’s lead photographer. Updated 4/11: Location and text have been updated to reflect revised plans.
The former Rippon Falls, where L. Victoria becomes the Nile and J. H. Speke camped in 1862
Date: Sat–Wed, 10–14 April 2010 /Entry 10 Reporter: Alison M. Jones Location: Jinga
NWNL will end its White Nile River Basin expedition in Jinga on Lake Victoria, the head of the Victoria Nile. With the guidance of a member of the National Association of Professional Engineers, NWNL will photograph fishing on Lake Victoria, the Bujagali and Owen Falls dams, and a local resettlement village created for those who had to be moved out of the Bujagali Reservoir. Discussions will focus on the processes followed (or not followed) in constructing these hydro dams and on other Nile River Basin projects that NAPE is focused on that impact Nile watershed ecosystems and water supplies, including oil exploration and extraction from protected areas.
From the field: The end of NWNL’s Uganda expedition was the beginning: the source of the Nile at the northern end of Lake Victoria’s Napoleon Bay! In 1862 John Hanning Speke was the first European to see Rippon Falls, submerged when the Owen Falls Dam was built (1954). At this hydrological landmark the Nile River begins its 4000-mile (6400-km), 3-month-long journey north to the Mediterranean Sea.
Our visit to Bujagali Falls, downstream from Rippon Falls, gave us an understanding of the power and drama of the Nile – what Rippon Falls was like before the Owen and Kiira Dams. Bujagali Falls provide nesting sanctuary for many bird species and are home to the spiritual gods of the Busoga Kingdom. Yet these falls will also be submerged when the government, with support of international financial institutions, finishes another large hydropower dam, despite the failed productions of the two immediately upstream.
A villager from Malindi where blasting for the Bujagali Dam has cracked many homes
These losses will be in vain because it is all but certain that the Bujagali dam will never reach its promised production of 250 megawatts. The upstream Owen Falls and Kiira Dams, meant to produce 350–380 megawatts of power, only produce 120 megawatts now – less than half intended! This is because of Lake Victoria’s falling water levels due to climate change, increased extraction by growing populations, and deforestation in the headwaters of rivers entering the lake. Water amounts coming into the Bujagali Dam are no different than that coming into the two upstream dams, as there are no additional tributaries between them and the Bujagali site.
Additionally, there were no proper environmental or social impact studies prior to construction. The government has largely disregarded the effects of the dam on the livelihoods of local stakeholders, whether resettled or suffering from the blast impacts. Surrounding communities (comprising over 8000 people) are struggling with landlessness, food insecurity, declining environmental quality, declining health, collapse of their fishing industry, and uncertain socio-economic futures. Resettled farmers who were moved from the Nile’s riverine flood plains have been struggling for 10 years to live on reassigned land that lacks water, sanitation or trees.
On top of these socio-economic issues, the cost of the dam relative to the amount of power expected will make Bujagali Dam’s hydropower the most expensive in the world – certainly not affordable to the 90% of Ugandans who currently lack electricity. NWNL hopes that the advocacy efforts of its newest partner, NAPE (National Association of Professional Issues), will help raise awareness and mitigate some of the problems being caused by the Bujagali Dam. The World Bank and the European Investment Banks are currently conducting investigations and withholding their critical funding until the reviews are concluded and recommendations initiated.
Alison Jones at the Source of the Nile with flag of NWNL’s fiscal sponsor, WINGS WorldQuest