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The world has made it so easy to overlook our natural resources in exchange for revenue. Take a look at dams as an example. According to statistics, we have buried a landmass equal to the size of the state of California in reservoirs behind dams since the start of the 20th century. That is a staggering amount of land lost. In this episode, writer and award-winning filmmaker Steven Hawley sheds light on this alarming information. With his new book, Cracked: The Future of Dams in a Hot, Chaotic World, Steven tells us the impact of dams on the health of our entire ecosystems and, more importantly, what we can do about it. Tune in as he joins Corinna Bellizzi to share more important insights on the state and future of dams and whether it is possible to recover the rivers we lost.
About Steven Hawley
Steven Hawley is a writer and filmmaker from Hood River, Oregon. He is the writer and co-producer of an award-winning documentary “Dammed to Extinction” (2019), and the author of Recovering a Lost River (Beacon Press, 2011). His new book, Cracked: The Future of Dams in a Hot, Chaotic World, releases May 2nd from Patagonia. Steve was among the first to write about the historic agreement to tear out Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine. Since then, his work has appeared in High Country News, OnEarth, The Oregonian, Missoula Independent and other publications.
Guest Website: https://www.stevenhawleyauthor.com
Additional Resources Mentioned: Dammed to Extinction TEDx, Dammed to Extinction (Documentary Film), Cracked: The Future of Dams In A Hot, Chaotic World
02:46 – How Cracked Came About
09:00 – Dammed To Extinction
16:15 – Dismantling Dams
19:14 – Alternative Drinking Water Source
25:58 – Why Are Dams A Political Issue
28:57 – Inspiring Change
37:54 – Steven’s Hope For The Future
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The Impact Of Dams On The Health Of Our Entire Ecosystems With Steven Hawley
I’ve shared my views on how we manage our open spaces and the problem of an over-extracted view of our natural world before on this show. It will come as no surprise to you that we’re going to dive deep into another system that we need to work to dismantle with this episode. We are going to talk about dams as we get to know Steven Hawley. Steven is a writer and filmmaker from Hood River, Oregon, my home state. He is the writer and co-producer of an award-winning documentary called Dammed to Extinction and the author of Recovering a Lost River.
His new book, Cracked: The Future of Dams in a Hot, Chaotic World, was released on May 2nd, 2023 from Patagonia. Steve was among the first to write about the historic agreement to tear out Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine. Since then, his work has appeared in High Country News, which is one of my favorite newsletters to subscribe to, OnEarth, The Oregonian, Missoula Independent, and other publications. I’m honored to bring him to you. I can’t wait to get started. Steven Hawley, welcome to the show.
Thanks, Corinna. I’m happy to be here.
I got to spend some time watching Dammed. I picked it up on Venmo for $4.99 and spent an hour being pretty pissed off, to be frank. You start to dive into the world that we have over-harvested for either energy, corporate interest, or what have you. It’s maddening.
What’s happening in the Pacific Northwest is a peculiar situation where you have a government agency that markets and sells power from dams on the Columbia. What your audiences should know about the Columbia is that until those dams were built years ago, the Columbia was one of the world’s greatest salmon-producing rivers. It was the world’s greatest producer of Chinook salmon anywhere on Earth.
We traded that production of marine fecundity. It was a one-of-a-kind marine ecosystem, rivaled nowhere else in the world. We traded that for what has become the most hydroelectrically developed system in the world. As you’ve said in your introduction, we have reached a point where we need to balance things out and regain some of that semblance of plenitude on the biological side.
When I received your book, I started reading from the very first page. You have described so much the problems that we see in this natural world and the importance of our rivers for the health of our entire ecosystems. Something I’ve talked about before on this show is the impact that salmon migration even has on the health of forests because they evolve together. If the salmon are going further upstream, they’re bringing the nutrition that they gained in the ocean to the rivers upstream and then die when they spawn, and their bodies feed the forests.
When we impact their ability to get where they need to get, then we’re not just impacting the health and tonnage of a salmon population that we can then harvest from the sea. We’re affecting the health of the forest. We’re affecting the health of the animals that live there and the apex predators, including the bears and anything else that might consume these fishes too. We’re creating stagnating waters. We’re taking away what could have been fertile and productive land. For what?
Here’s an interesting statistic that your audiences might appreciate. Since the start of the 20th century, we have buried a landmass equal to the size of the state of California in reservoirs behind dams. This is a staggering amount of land that we have lost. Fortunately, what a large part of my book, Cracked, deals with is the movement to return some of these lands to the oxygen side of the Earth’s crust.
There are some heartening stories up and down the West Coast. I think of the two dams on the Elwha River West of Seattle, Washington where they took out two dams that were built illegally inside a national park years ago. One of those dams was more than a century old. Scientists have been charting the recovery of this ecosystem, most of which lies protected in the national park. The recovery has been remarkable.
This recovery has taken place at a time when the major factor in salmon production or the productivity of oceans has been on the decline. Nonetheless, the Elwha and other rivers where dams have been torn out are giving us an antidote to a less productive ocean. It’s not only an aesthetically pleasing thing to have a free-flowing river again. It provides numerous other benefits, including economic ones as well.It's not only an aesthetically pleasing thing to have a free-flowing river again. It provides numerous other benefits, including economic ones as well. Click To Tweet
I think of the Kennebec River in Maine where after several hundred years of the town of Augusta turning its back to the river because it was an industrial sewer and after the Edwards Dam came out, waterfront development occurred, and property values rose. There’s almost an incalculable number of benefits to tearing out a dam and restoring a free-flowing river. That’s the gist of the book although there are some other elements to it as well.
How did this book come to be as presented by Patagonia Press? I believe you have also an audiobook coming out through Penguin Random House on May 2nd, 20233 if my internet sleuthing was correct.
You are correct. Recovering a Lost River, which is the first book I wrote about rivers and dams, was published in 2011. Matt Stoecker, who’s the executive producer of a documentary film that Patagonia produced called DamNation, read the book and was inspired by it. I would like to think that Recovering a Lost River was part of the inspiration for the film DamNation but for whatever reason, Matt called me and said, “We’re getting kicked off making this movie. We would like your help.” I had two toddlers at the time and wasn’t in a position to start traveling around the country making movies. I gave him all of my information and my blessing, and they produced a gorgeous film.
It came out in 2013. On the heels of that film, it was suggested by some folks at Patagonia that I would be willing to write a follow-up because, in the film, they felt like they caught a lot of the projects that they were depicting, no pun intended, in midstream. I decided to take that on. This is an exciting enough world that is worthy of at least two books. Much has happened in the last few years that I believe it’s become one of the most powerful tools that we have in the endeavor to restore ecosystems and maintain the ones we have that are still intact.
I’m an avid consumer of audiobooks. As soon as it’s available that way, I will get that version too. I am making the recommendation to my audience to pick up the physical copy because this book has some dynamite pictures. It’s beautiful. It has the smell of a book that you love. I know Patagonia is using archival-quality paper and also eco-friendly printing. To be able to share this with everybody, you see the pictures of these beautiful spaces. You see comparisons of where the Colorado River is in 2000 versus 2022. You can see the impact of evaporation. That stuff is very hard to convey in an audiobook. This makes for not only a beautiful read. Your prose is eloquent. You need to see it.
I like to caution people to get out and explore the natural world and places like this. Look at some of the dams yourself. Some of these are virtually falling apart, yet we keep them hanging on. When I watched Dammed and then finished it, I was not entirely surprised to learn that these dams that you’re advocating the closure of, especially those along the lower Snake River, are producing more energy than is required. They are producing a surplus, and it’s negatively impacting the ability of the salmon to get up the river and then back out to sea when they’re in a juvenile state. They end up being food for the bass that’s sitting there in these warmer waters.
The movie that you watched tells a sad tale of what’s happening up the food chain with three pods of killer whales that historically have evolved to eat Chinook salmon in the Eastern Pacific. These orcas spent their summers in and around the Salish Sea, which is off the coast of Seattle, roughly speaking. In former times even up into the late ’70s and early ’80s, salmon were so plentiful that these orcas would hunt for a few hours in the morning and then frolic the rest of the day.
The scientist in the movie that you watched, Ken Balcomb, spent 50 years tracking the decline of these whales. Probably the saddest chapter in that saga was a mother named Tahlequah who lost a baby orca. This mother spent 17 days and swam 1,000 miles with her dead calf, pushing it with her nose to keep it from sinking to the bottom. This event got worldwide attention. Orcas are very charismatic animals. It was covered on all the national news stations.
It also helped people who are interested in the subject make a connection between, for instance, what happens in a stream in Idaho along the Continental Divide and where these orcas historically have gotten their food. Remember that the Columbia in fairly recent times produced somewhere between up to five million Chinook salmon every year. In 2023, in terms of wild fish, it will be fewer than 100,000.
We’re starving what has been historically one of the richest marine ecosystems on the planet in the name of producing power on a river that produces too much of that electricity, especially this time of year. In a very wet year like this one, nobody wants it. It’s time to start thinking about doing things in a completely different way. I don’t want to make another movie about a grief-stricken orca mother pushing her calf up and down the Salish Sea and showing the world, “You humans need to start thinking about this in a different way.”
There was another story told in that film, which is something we have heard about around the globe when you introduce dams. Indigenous populations are often uprooted. That’s exactly what happened in this case. I’m fully endorsing and hoping that people will go out, go to the Vimeo page, rent this film for 48 hours, and watch it as many times as they care to in that time. I was so angry watching the film even though I knew about these things and even though I read a fair amount about the things that happen when you create dams with salmons. I’ve heard all the stories, “We created a fish ladder so they can swim upstream.”
I was happy to see that you addressed that in the film because for those that don’t know, I’ve spent more than a decade in the omega-3 space and fish. I helped to bring to market Kenai wild salmon oil from Alaska. I got to understand the overburdened commercial fishing operations that are out there to secure salmon populations and also the illegal fishing that often takes place impacting these animals. I also visited places along the coast of Alaska where you would see these fish ladders in operation.
There’s a great movie from Patagonia called Artifishal that examines that whole world or this idea with the advent of fish ladders and fish hatcheries that we could have our cake and eat it too. We could have dams and hydroelectricity. You could have wild salmon as well. The fact of the matter is you can’t. Those hatchery operations are based on an agricultural model of production. Salmon production is not based on that model at all. It’s based on diversity and abundance.
For instance, with Chinook, there’s a spring run of Chinook and a fall run of Chinook in the Columbia but probably more significant than that, these animals in evolutionary terms are incredible. Remember that every Chinook salmon that spawns in a stream is genetically distinct from its neighbor in the next watershed over. Every wild Chinook salmon has exquisitely genetically adapted to their place.
What you do when you build a dam, cut off access to that place, and try to replace that diversity with a hatchery, is you make it impossible for that key component of a salmon’s life cycle or the diversity. It’s impossible for that to take place anymore because when they raise farmed fish, which is what they are, they release them all at once. They come back to the hatchery at the same time, and they’re simply not adapted to survive in the wild the same way that fish that spawn naturally are.
To my earlier point, they aren’t as strong. They can’t get upstream even if they had some earlier genetic coding. They’re not bringing the nutrition from the sea as far inland, and that has other effects on the ecosystem.
Researchers at the University of Washington found that in forests where salmon are present, tree growth can increase by up to a third. You look at where some of the world’s largest trees are up and down the Eastern Pacific coast or the West Coast of North America, the Redwoods, and the old-growth Douglas fir forests in Oregon and Washington. Those are forests that were built by salmon. We don’t want to give up on that.
If you were to prioritize the dams that we should look to dismantle first, which might they be?
Since I live in the Pacific Northwest, and I’ve been working as Citizen Steve on this issue for quite some time, if I could wave a magic wand and get rid of four dams on the lower Snake River, that would be my first choice. However, for your audiences in California and elsewhere that live in the Colorado basin, there are some interesting things happening in Colorado. It looks like with this wet year, there may be something of a reprieve but you’re looking at two reservoirs on the Colorado system, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, that are each less than a third full.
With longer summers and increasing rates of evaporation and lower precipitation totals, one of those, the reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam, which is Lake Powell, has reached a tipping point. That tipping point is there are intakes for the hydroelectric turbines at that dam. Probably the first tipping point is if the level of the reservoir keeps dropping, it’s not going to be too many more years before they can’t make electricity there anymore but the bigger problem quite honestly is that once the level of the reservoir drops a little bit beyond that, the Colorado River will cease to flow.
In other words, there is no way for the river to get below the penstocks of the hydroelectric turbines. That’s where the water spills in and down on a turbine and makes it spin to turn electricity. When the reservoir drops below that level, it has to drop another 90 feet before it gets to the outlet works. The Bureau of Reclamation is hastily trying to figure out ways that they can make a new bypass tunnel or do something to prevent the 30 million people downstream of Glen Canyon Dam who rely on the Colorado River from being impacted because this is a disaster unfolding.
They never anticipated that we would enter this period of dry years and that there wouldn’t be a way to release Colorado River water other than through those penstocks. This is a serious dilemma. It’s also given an opportunity to people like Gary Wockner who runs Save the Colorado and has been advocating for the removal of Glen Canyon Dam for many years now and other people that are doing this work and saying, “The cheapest solution to your trouble on the Colorado is to get rid of Glen Canyon Dam.” I have my wishes about which dams I would like to see come out but our climate chaos is making some of those choices perhaps a little easier to make.
I do know too that there are other dams closer to me, even those that are feeding San Francisco’s drinking waters, for example. I believe there’s a dam out on Tuolumne or somewhere near there that supplies their water. San Francisco prides itself in having the nicest and tastiest drinking water that’s completely pure because of that. What do we do about city populations that rely on these water sources when you’re talking about millions of people and the potential removal of dams, which could impact their drinking water supply?
I can think of two things. One is the amount of evaporation that is coming out of reservoirs, especially in hot and dry places or places that by all measures inevitably can become hotter and drier. It doesn’t make sense to store drinking water or any water for municipal, industrial, or agricultural use in a reservoir. In the book that I wrote, Cracked, there’s a chapter about evaporation. Some of the latest science done by researchers at the University of Colorado have calculated that annually, the standard rate of evaporation, the one that the Bureau of Reclamation used for years, said it’s 10% annually. You lose about 10% of the water. That’s the cost of doing business.
What these researchers have discovered is it’s twice that or more. Inevitably, it’s going to grow because we’re getting hotter and drier. You look at the amount of water that you’re losing in a giant reservoir like the one behind Glen Canyon Dam or even the smaller one that you referenced, which is O’Shaughnessy Dam on the Tuolumne River. It doesn’t make sense to store water in that way anymore.
In the case of Hetch Hetchy, there’s a gentleman named Spreck Rosekrans who’s interviewed in the book. He points out that there’s already enough other storage in the Tuolumne system that San Francisco could keep their drinking water. If you took out O’Shaughnessy Dam, it would open up some opportunities for San Francisco to acquire drought year rights that they don’t have.
The last thing that I’ll mention on that front is a fairly recent development in California to their credit has started to experiment on a large scale with this. Instead of storing water in a reservoir, why not store it underground? There are a couple of experiments going on where water managers are recharging underground aquifers, especially in years like this one. There’s going to be a massive surplus of water. This is where all of our groundwater came from originally anyway.
You divert the flow of a river into these underground storage areas, and then it doesn’t evaporate. It’s available for use in future years. You may not be able to completely recharge some of the underground aquifers that we have depleted but you’re not going to lose 20% of that water to the sun either. This is the innovative and creative thinking that is going to be important to get us through what’s looking like a very long emergency with the drought that we have.
My understanding is that our local reservoir, the Lexington Reservoir, may be one of those that is feeding an underground supply. At least I’ve heard that. I haven’t looked into it personally. These are pages 98 and 99 of your book where you compare 2020 to 2022 of what’s happening with the Colorado River. The reason this is so critical beyond your mention of this issue with that dam and needing to tunnel it out so the water will be able to move is that the Colorado River supplies much of California farmland.
If you’re thinking about the food that we produce and the hay that is grown, it is all coming from the Tuolumne or the Colorado River. Those are the two primaries for what we’re seeing here. A lot of Central Valley gets water from the Tuolumne. We have aquifers that are diverting water from the Colorado River and the Tuolumne but ultimately, if we run into an issue, the farmers get hit. Suddenly, they can’t produce the hay they normally do. Food costs go way up. This is something that we’re already seeing. The price of hay went from roughly $20 for a bale of grass hay to $35.40. It more than doubled. It’s gotten ridiculous.
Food security is a huge issue. I don’t want to take anything away from that. In the short term, California, because of the powerhouse nature of its agricultural output, has secured the senior most water rights in the Colorado basin. They will be the last to receive cuts but our thinking on issues like this is unfortunately very short-term. It also doesn’t answer the question of what happens when the Colorado River stops flowing out of Glen Canyon Dam.
Another huge issue with irrigated agriculture that I don’t deal with in this book is the increasing salinity of water as it’s used for agriculture. For the Colorado system, this is a huge problem. A lot of water that waters a field drips back into the river, is taken out again, and then waters another field. In the process of flowing through agricultural lands, it becomes more alkaline.Another huge issue with irrigated agriculture is the increasing salinity of water as it's used for agriculture. Click To Tweet
There are places, including in some of the richest growing regions in California, where the salinity of the water has gotten so great that you can’t grow crops with it anymore. Like any agricultural problem, there are people that are addressing this but what I appreciate about your show is it advocates for a more holistic way of thinking about things. I suppose I’m trying to do the same thing with this book.
Instead of addressing all these individual problems that come up with a system that you have like our system of dams, reservoirs, irrigation, and water supply, and instead of playing whack-a-mole with every problem that causes, let’s address the problem at its root. Let’s take out a few dams that we don’t need anymore. I suspect that when we do that, we will see that the results are so positive that we will want to do it in some other places as well.
I have a question about the Army Corps of Engineers and politicians that may or may not stand for the removal of some of these dams. Why does this remain such a political issue?
Entrenched ways of thinking and well-moneyed ways of thinking are the two main causes that I think of. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the federal agency is the bad guy as far as I’m concerned in matters of reforming what’s happening in the Columbia basin. That agency is called the Bonneville Power Administration. It’s this peculiar mix of public and private privilege and power. It’s the easiest way to put it. An aide to former Oregon governor Ted Kulongoski told me once that the Bonneville Power Administration is the very worst of the government and private sectors mixed into one.
PG&E might give them a running.
We could talk about that separately.
It becomes the age-old cause of a lot of our problems, which is the very strictest adherence to profit over every other motive. The Bonneville Power Administration generates about $3.5 billion a year in revenue. They spread that wealth out historically by keeping power rates inside the Pacific Northwest low but they’re also a horribly mismanaged agency. They’re $15 billion in debt. They are obliged by federal law to restore salmon. In my mind, the agency is criminally incompetent or inept because here’s what the law says you need to do, and they’re not doing it.
My husband once said to me something that I’ve seen proven out. These documentaries are looking at what would the world do if we suddenly stopped being here. I’m forgetting the name of one of them but it was very popular. It was on the Discovery Network. The whole premise was on day 1, day 5, day 15, and day 25 of humans being gone and what the world looks like. He always said to me, “It takes a massive amount of labor to keep a dam operational. You would be surprised how quickly they fail.”
I’m like, “This is some end-of-the-world thinking. How long would it take for a dam to fail?” Sure enough, you see this documentary that’s created about what would happen after humans. Within two weeks, they’re saying that some of the outlets for the dams start to clog with things like snails. They’re all over my fish tank. They’re going to be in dams too. The power it produces stops running efficiently.
The reason you even called this book Cracked is this is a crumbling infrastructure. A lot of these dams are in disrepair. They would cost an incredible amount of money to repair what we would call the building code for dams. What does this look like? What do you think the likelihood is of us succeeding in getting a few of these dams removed in the near future?
Let me answer that question first by saying I suppose I’m somewhat of a cynic in investigating this issue and other issues around the safety of all of our industrial endeavors. As a species, we’re not nearly as good at long-range planning as we pretend to be. One of the most fascinating parts of Cracked is an interview with an engineering professor from UC Berkeley. His name is Robert Bea. They call him Dr. Disaster because Dr. Bea has investigated everything from the Space Shuttle disaster to the Deep Water Horizon drilling fiasco. He tells this great story about a young pilot from Boeing that kept visiting him in his office and saying, “I want to ask you about this and that. I want our planes to be safer.”As a species, we're not nearly as good at long-range planning as we pretend to be. Click To Tweet
That pilot was Chesley Sullenberger, the guy who landed the plane on the Hudson. What Dr. Bea told me is that the dam industry needs the equivalent of Chesley Sullenberger to come in and reform what’s going on. Dr. Bea was so appalled by what he’s seen and investigated at Oroville Dam. You will remember the spillway at Oroville failed spectacularly back in 2017. He said it’s a matter of time before one of these big dams fails. I hate to say this but it will be in the wake of a disaster like that when we start looking at a more rapid way of assessing not only the safety but the value of all these projects.
You can look at the PG&E issue with the fires all over California. We have known for a long time the solution. The solution is moving the power grid underground. Much like what you’re saying, bring the water and store it underground so that we don’t have the evaporation issue. The evaporation issue also creates more storms that could be more impactful in future years.
Keep some of the groundwater in place. Trees will continue to grow healthy. We’re not going to run out of water as quickly. You also look at putting the power lines underground so we don’t have them snapping back and hitting a dry tender tree that will suddenly go up in flames, take out an entire hillside, skip over a freeway, and suddenly take out entire swaths of land.
Entire neighborhoods as we saw in the Paradise fire.
In my neck of the woods, we had the CZU Lightning Complex come through. The entire town of Scotts Valley got evacuated, some of which was probably to get us out so that firemen had clear access without traffic because of how bad things got. I had friends who lost their homes. My husband works for Joby Aviation. Many of the people that live in Ben Lomond credit Joby with saving their neighborhood because these last men standing said, “We’re going to protect this property. That means we need to protect this access road.” When everybody was leaving, and even the fire trucks weren’t servicing that area, they were there with theirs. We’re at this phase. We need some massive changes in how we have built our infrastructure. It needs to be updated. It’s that simple.
To me, then the question becomes, “How do you inspire change?” That’s part of what your show is about. I think of a Chilean activist who I interview in the book named Juan Pablo Orrego. He makes the case that is worth repeating. To inspire people to do these kinds of things and take on this incredibly difficult work, we have to return to an appreciation of the aesthetic beauty of the natural world.
We have to look to the incredible reverence that somebody like John Muir had for a place like Yosemite and mourn with John Muir the loss of Yosemite’s twin, which was Hetch Hetchy Valley buried behind O’Shaughnessy Dam. Glen Canyon, the namesake of that dam on Colorado, as I write in the book, was one of the most beautiful places, perhaps, on the entire continent. It was buried hastily behind a dam in the early ’60s. To foster the belief that we can return to some semblance of wholeness, we have to start with the premise that a beautiful thing is worth saving.
That is the ultimate message of this book. Start with that. Find a place that spoke to you in your childhood or your adulthood and spend time there. Appreciate the beauty that’s still there and know that taking on the difficult work of getting a dam removed or any other stream restoration is going to create a world where you can sit down with your kids or your grandkids and say, “This place is better than it was when I was a kid. That’s because your parents’ generation wanted this to be that way for you. We wanted to create a world that was better for you than it has been for us.” That’s I hope the attitude that this book fosters in people that choose to pick it up.
I am reminded of a conversation I had with Paul Hawken when I brought him on this show back in September 2021 with the release of his book, Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation. He begged or pleaded with our audience to get to know where they live and understand the natural world around them because none of us in this modern world under this paved environment understands the roots, the history, and even what the land was like before we were here.
The only way to reconnect with nature is to go to even a spot that’s in the same ecosystem but that hasn’t been developed yet. Admire it. Spend some time in it. Look at the bugs, the insects, and the animals. Be quiet in the space. Let it be that forest sound bath. I do this every day when I take a walk with my dog because I live next to an open space preserve. On the other side of the hill I’m on, I abut a redwood forest. I’ve got chaparral on one side and a redwood forest on the other with some natural creeks and streams.
I take this three-and-a-half-mile walk, some of which is more civilized but then get into this backwoods portion. I sit in this redwood grove for a minute or so. There’s one lone maple tree. I call her my friend, Maple. It’s far too old and looks like she’s going to fall but somebody took the trouble to cable her so she’s still up. I enjoy being in the woods for a moment.
That experience is so important because we do know in the abstract what we want the world to look like. How do you know that you love your partner, your husband, or your wife? It’s not an abstract thing. It’s a specific and intimate thing because you know their habits. You know what you love about them and maybe what you don’t love so much. It’s immediate to your feelings. It’s not something that exists in your head. Loving any portion of the Earth is the same affair.
We have become this nation of urban nomads. Staying still in a place long enough to get not only to know it on an intellectual level but to love it requires time and requires sticking to a certain place. What you’re doing or that simple act of walking your dog around the open space is to me where all the restoration in the world that we need begins. It’s spending that time appreciating that segment of the ecosystem that you live in that’s still intact enough for you to take a deep breath and go, “This is a gorgeous spot.”
I already have the answer to one of my next questions but I want to ask it anyway because you never know. You might come up with some other crazy gem that we need to know or a section of the book. If you were to define what your hope for the future is, could you describe that for us?
The final chapter of the book is called What Spirits Might Wear in 2050. It’s a vision of those three rivers that are depicted in that final chapter, the Tuolumne, the Colorado, and the Snake all running free. The vision is a little bit flighty, I suppose, but it’s also meant to inspire because to get to a place that I’m envisioning at the end of the book in mid-century, you have to start imagining it now.
The reason I wrote yet another book about dams and rivers after I had already written one is that this work is not only urgent, and when it’s done, it’s done in a way that’s powerful, but rivers provide us with the easiest access to finding that spot as we already discussed where you can sit down and see that the world is still a beautiful thing and that we owe it to ourselves, our children, and grandchildren to make it as good as we can possibly make it so that they can do the same thing for their ensuing generations when they’re our age. It’s ultimately a book about rivers and dams but it’s also about hope. I hope it inspires some hope in people.
It inspires people on both sides of the aisle to agree, shake hands, and work toward the preservation of the world’s natural beauty. I’m also somewhat of a skeptic. I’ve heard people make some ridiculous comments like, “If you take the dams out, beavers will create their natural dams.”
The flooding argument is probably the biggest mythology about dams. It’s that they control floods. There are a few dams that do that thing but even the giant dams that we have here in my neck of the woods provide almost nothing in the way of flood control. They’re designed to facilitate navigation and power production. We saw flooding here years ago when the Portland Airport almost flooded because the Columbia was about to overtop its banks. The dams can’t control those things. The illusion that you can control those things only makes a disaster worse.
When you straighten the banks with levees along a river, that increases the velocity of the water. When the river finally overtops its banks, you have a bigger problem than what you would have had if you had left it alone. We seem to insist in all of the generations of the past century and a quarter on deploying these grand feats of engineering without thinking too much about the consequences in both the short and long term. It’s time to step back from that and recognize that any ecosystem that evolves over hundreds of thousands or even millions of years probably has its inherent wisdom that’s worth respecting.Any ecosystem that evolves over hundreds of thousands or even millions of years probably has its inherent wisdom that's worth respecting. Click To Tweet
We have something to learn from nature, and we keep not learning it yet we think we’re the smartest species on the planet. I watched a video on TikTok of all places about the farmer ants. The farmer ant has been farming aphids for 50 million years. The fact that a critter that we think of as a pest could have a complex system of procuring its food that mirrors something of our own is yet another thing that we somehow say, “We’re different because.” We’re different because we change our environment. We do things like create dams and then look at them like they might just be a spigot we could turn on or off with need but that’s not what they are.
Dams are an illusion that humans love to entertain and that we can control things. You were talking about aphids. My youngest is fifteen. He came home from biology class, which he loves. I said, “Tell me about what you learned in biology.” He said, “There’s a mite that lives in your eyelashes, comes out at night, and has sex on your face.” I was blown away. I was also disgusted but I wanted to know more. With little factoids like that, as gross as they may be, and other things that we have yet to learn about the way the world functions, we can relinquish the idea of having to control every aspect of the natural world.
We can start to appreciate the things that it does furnish us and live with the things that it sometimes threatens us with as well. My hope with the book is that it fosters that appreciation for things that on the surface may not be all that pleasant to think about but lead to a bigger picture that is way more enticing than the future that we’re facing if we don’t change our ways.
After your book arrived, I spent some time by our local river. As I was mentioning before we started recording, this course has changed. That has come because we had unprecedented rainfall. The trail is eroded. I now have to walk less far to get to a very beautiful sandy beach. I sat out there with my boys and we noticed some beautiful steelhead trout in the river or some quite large trout hanging out under this rocky area and then a green heron. The first I’ve ever seen here showed up. I was like, “Where is that bird from? It’s beautiful.”
Being in this environment and spending time doing a whole lot of nothing on the bank of a river for three hours with boys that are throwing rocks into the creek or running up and down the sandbanks and rolling over was the best time I’ve had in a long time with my boys. Being out there in the natural world is soul-cleansing for you. Kids get all sorts of creative energy from that. They came home from that and wanted to go back the next day for the same thing. We need to remind ourselves too that it’s something that feeds the soul. If it feels like a chore, it won’t. Once you get out there, make some time to commune with nature. I don’t care what side of the political spectrum you’re on. You will love it.
As you were describing that, I had goosebumps on my arm thinking about how every August, I try to go to this spot in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho where there are still a few salmon that make it almost 1,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean up to this relatively little creek that they spawn in. I’m hoping to take both my kids there this summer so they can see that. It’s gotten to the point where you start to worry, “Is this the last year that they’re going to make it that far?”
This may be why I got chills in my arm when you were talking. Any time along a river manages to do is to focus all of your energy on the present moment. You stop worrying about what’s happened in the past and stop fretting over what might happen in the future. You’re focused on the beautiful thing that’s right in front of you. That can be a couple of steelhead trout under a rock or Chinook salmon that have swum 1,000 miles from the ocean. It can be a water dipper, a blue heron, or an osprey.
It can be all those things in combination. It focuses your attention on the present in a way that some people undertake years of intensive religious practice to get to. The river provides us with the privilege of sitting next to it. If I had to choose between somebody reading my book or sitting next to a river for an hour, I hope they do both but I might advocate for the river first and then the reading second.
Maybe I’ll take the book with me, hang out there, and read as my boys frolic too.
Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, said, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” Some other smart person said, “You can’t even step in the same river once because of the nature of moving water.” Both of those things are true.
Thank you so much for joining me. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this. I would love to invite you back when you have another story you want to tell. I would love to see if you have any closing thoughts you would like to share or a question that you wish I asked that perhaps I haven’t.
The book closes with the thought that one of the reasons that we love rivers so much is we see ourselves reflected in the nature of the way they flow and change. I would suggest as a whimsical thought here at the end of the interview to consider yourself to be a river on a whimsy and maybe consider how it is that the health of your favorite stream and the health of you might be intertwined. That might also help figure out some ways, large and small, that you can improve not only your life but the waterways that are such an integral part of it. That’s what I would end with.
Thank you so much for joining me.
Corinna, thanks for having me.
To pick up Steven Hawley’s new book, Cracked: The Future of Dams in a Hot, Chaotic World, visit your local bookstore or even get the audiobook if you prefer to listen to your books. As I mentioned earlier, the book is beautiful. If you go that route, perhaps consider doing both things, audiobook, and print. That way, you can pay forward your copy to someone else that will love it too and put more good into the world. Please sign up for our newsletter. Subscribers receive a welcome gift. It’s our five-step guide to get you organized and inspire your activism. It can serve as a great project management tool too. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an activist path that you’re pursuing.
If you have feedback or want to suggest a future topic to the show, please send me an email, or you can leave me a voicemail directly on the site too. You can click on that microphone icon in the bottom right-hand corner and leave me a message. Thank you, audiences, now and always, for being a part of this community because together, we can do so much more. We can care more. We can be better. We can even tear down our water walls, return our rivers to their former glory, bring back flourishing fish stocks, and save the orcas. This is doable. Spread the word. We can do it together. Thank you.
- Dammed to Extinction
- Recovering a Lost River
- Cracked: The Future of Dams in a Hot, Chaotic World
- Save the Colorado
- Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation With Paul Hawken, 5 Time Best-Selling Author and Environmentalist – Past Episode
- Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation