In our Season 2 opener, Brett has a conversation with noted filmmaker and author, Steve Hawley. Steve has a brand new book out called, Cracked: The Future of Dams in a Hot, Chaotic World. They discuss the mythology surrounding the benefits of many of the world’s dams; the benefits of restoring once-dammed rivers; Dam Removal 101; and why he’s cautiously optimistic about the future of the world’s natural systems.
Go buy Steve’s new book here:
- To get it straight from the publisher, Patagonia
- To buy it from Steve’s favorite book store
- To find it at Amazon
Watch Steve’s film, Dammed to Extinction
To learn more about restoration work being done on the Klamath River, check out this amazing video.
I encourage you to find out more about what my friends at Sea & Shoreline and RES are doing to restore and protect Florida’s natural places and communities here: https://seaandshoreline.com and here: https://res.us
Welcome to the second season of Water for Fighting, where we discuss the past, present, and future of water in Florida and beyond with the people who make it happen. I’m your host, Brett Seifers, and I’m so grateful to be back with you for another season. I wanna start by thanking my new partners who helped make this podcast a reality, Sea and Shoreline and Resource Environmental Solutions, widely known as RES.
REZ is a national leader in ecological and hydrological restoration, offering nature-based solutions with guaranteed performance through innovative delivery options. Discover more about their work and commitment to addressing Florida’s environmental challenges by visiting www.res.us.
Also, Sea and Shoreline is a Florida-based aquatic restoration firm that is on a mission to restore Florida’s water bodies and to protect our coastline communities against severe storms. You can check out their projects at seaandshoreline.com. More on both of those great companies later on. But now let’s talk a little bit about the season in front of us.
As implied by the Florida and beyond from a second ago, we’ll be broadening our horizons a bit on the show. I think you’re going to find the conversation lineup for this season to be both interesting and thought-provoking. I should note that much of the season’s lineup is thanks in part to the feedback I’ve gotten from you, the listeners, so please keep sending your suggestions. Let’s get on with the season opening guest. Our guest is a filmmaker, an author, who has dedicated an already storied career to making the case that we have been terribly misinformed about the benefits of dams,
and even religious cost. His name is Steve Hawley. And Steve has a new book out called Crack The Future of Dams in a Hot Chaotic World. Steve, thank you for joining me on the podcast. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it. You’ve written a well-documented and beautifully illustrated book, but this is a personality driven podcast. So if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to start by talking about you for a bit. That’s all right. Sure.
Let’s start with where you live and where you were born and take it from there. Yeah, I live about an hour east of where I was born. I’m from Hood River, Oregon, and grew up in Portland. And I think maybe the most pertinent and interesting thing about my ever lengthening life history here, I’m in my early fifties is that in my formative years, one of my best friends growing up was a fly fishing nerd and
energy and still is a fly fishing nerd as a matter of fact and introduced me to the world of Rivers and steelhead and salmon and quite clearly that’s shaped some of my career choices was that part of Growing up what were your what were your parents like were were they from Oregon as well or did they come from somewhere else? My mother grew up in Salem and Eugene my dad grew up in Berkeley, California and in outside of Boise, Idaho
And they’re both school teachers. My dad is a PE teacher. My mom taught second and third grade. Okay. What were you like as a kid? You mentioned your, your friend who was the, the fly fishing nerd. Did you start fishing when you were really young or did you have other interests as well? I loved, I, I, I took to fishing right away. Neither of my parents were super outdoorsy people or fishermen, but my dad would always, you know, particularly on Sundays after church, if we wanted to go fishing somewhere, we’d hop in his old pickup truck.
He’d take me to some spots out along the Clackamas River. That those were really formative experiences, but it really took off when I when I connected with this friend of mine who whose whose father taught a whole bunch of us skinny, you know, East County, East Multnomah County kids to really appreciate rivers in a way that I couldn’t have done without getting to know this family. How old were you at that point? When you when you started to connect with that one kid and his and his dad?
16 maybe. Okay. It was high school. Yeah. So as soon as one of them had a driver’s license, then that really opened up doors as well, of course. Did that extend beyond high school into college, that sort of thing? Yeah, I had one of those kids, another friend of ours, pretty much designed his whole college career around getting out to fish. I lived with him in tiny little Ashland, Oregon, where I went to…
college and this guy managed to get all of his classes into two days a week so he could have the other five days a week to fish. I didn’t quite have quite that level of dedication but it was truly the case that what we were taught when we were 15 and 16 is stuck with this sort of core group of friends who are who are still at it you know still out on rivers whenever we can get there. So you still hang out with him go fishing? Yeah a couple times a year. Awesome, awesome. Yeah.
What were you studying in college? Was it something related to natural sciences or engineering or geology, something like that? Well, I still have ongoing case of math phobia. And so I have a degree in English, but I took every science class that I could that didn’t have a lab attached with it. So a lot of ecology, a little biology, some geology.
Really, because of that introduction to the natural world through fishing, I became sort of fascinated with all of the facets of the earth sciences, I suppose. And that’s still sort of fascinating subject for me. We know what is, what is this place that we’re inhabiting? What is its history? What makes it work? What hurts it? What helps it? I’m always interested in, in kind of the origin stories of a sort, you know, with folks and.
they get to a point in their career and they’re doing things that are really special. But for me, it’s the curiosity is where does that come from? And that’s a really interesting origin there. When did that start to stretch into thinking about dams, writing about dams, working on those sorts of issues? Was it from a personal experience or was it something that you got into from another direction?
What I started considering at a relatively young age was just this massive transformation of the Columbia River system. The Columbia was once upon a time, relatively recently, one of the world’s top producers of salmon and was the world’s very best producer of Chinook salmon. And what we’ve done over the past three quarters of a century is transform that system, that natural system that existed for hundreds of thousands of years,
That same river basin becoming one of the world’s top producers of hydropower. And so I started wondering what the trade-offs have been. And, you know, that’s one of the reasons I’ve spent so much time writing about this topic is those trade-offs are not often well considered. I don’t think over the long haul, I think the system that we’ve transformed is going to cost a lot more than it ever has come to. Yeah. I want to talk about that a bit because.
You tell story after story of, and I’ll call it the false promise of dams, as it relates to the supposed economic and even cultural value. You tell that really cool story about the video that you show on the face of the dam. But you made some strong arguments that that’s not the case necessarily. Can you talk a little bit about some of those assumptions that we make about those benefits like hydropower, agriculture, and the reality that you ended up seeing as you researched it?
Yeah, I think the trade-off to keep in mind is that the benefits that were promised have never quite been delivered. Maybe the second part of that is the ecological cost has been far higher than anybody has previously calculated. And that second part is especially true under any kind of climate change scenario that you’d want to consider. So, you know, recall that a lot of these projects were built…
And I guess the big dam building frenzy was in the last century, starting probably with the depression and the federal programs to kind of put people back to work. And that’s an honorable motivation, but the benefits that were supposed to be delivered from water control projects were supposed to be kind of a rising tide that would lift all boats. And that’s not really what happened. For instance, the Columbia basin projects just west of me here in Washington state, the hope was to put 10,000
families on their own working farms. And we never really got much more than a quarter of that. You know, it turned out that there’s about 2,500 families on some rather larger working farms. And so then the problem became, and this is something that the engineers never considered because what was really required was a type of social engineering. Where were you going to find the labor pool to work?
you know, almost a million acres of newly irrigated land. And the answer to that question has been migrant labor. And there’s a, in the book, I outlined the whole kind of sorted history of our relationship with immigrant labor. And we’ve had kind of a Jekyll and Hyde relationship.
with mostly Latin American and Hispanic workers. At first we invited them under a program called Bracero’s. And then a lot of the folks that we invited, we ended up uninviting in a rather unfriendly way. That kind of contrasting treatment of the labor pool that is still in this country, responsible for putting a lot of our food on the table, that’s never really been resolved. The immigrant issue that we have in this country is in a large part, particularly in the Western United States, driven by…
the water projects that we built in the last century. You know, so that’s the economic cost. And we can talk a little bit about the environmental cost, which has been enormous. Sure. And you mentioned climate change, right? So at one point you talked about in particular methane and how these reservoirs on the backside of these dams are causing more methane thereby supposedly it would be counteracting the benefits of saying, using hydropower instead of saying, you know, coal or oil or something like that, right?
Yeah, there’s a whole mythology around hydropower that borrows heavily on the virtuous intent, you know, of building large public water control projects. And part of that mythology is that
hydro power is clean and green. It never has been. First of all, we talked a little bit already about the transformation of one of the greatest salmon-bearing river systems on earth into one that produces electricity. And so the loss of that resource, which has cultural, social, and even for indigenous people, religious implications, the costs have never really been fully calculated. And then you fast forward to our current predicament with climate change. In the book, I…
talk about a researcher on the Washington State University campus who’s been part of this global team of scientists. And they’ve recently figured out that the world’s reservoirs, impoundments behind dams, have a greenhouse gas equivalent footprint, in other words, methane, that is equal to the greenhouse gas footprint of the nation of Germany, which is the world’s sixth largest producer of greenhouse gases.
contribution to climate chaos, and yet we still have policies in place that say, well, hydropower can be part of the solution, but it’s not. The science tells us differently. All right, let’s take a quick break here to talk about my friends at Sea and Shoreline. Since its creation in 2014, Sea and Shoreline’s heralded experience with scientifically validated methods of aquatic restoration has proven successful across more than 150 environmental projects.
The company continues to be the industry leader in rehabilitating threatened and corrupted aquatic environments, with proven success in places such as Crystal River, Homasasa River, the Caloosatchee River, and the Indian River Lagoon. I have seen firsthand how Seah and Shoreline completely reset the ecosystem in Crystal River, transforming it from an algae-dominated system to a plant-based system. The water used to be full of lingbia and hydrilla, with a thick bottom layer of muck that smelled like rotten eggs. Through muck removal,
and planting of native eel grasses, the system is now beautiful and crystal clear with lush eelgrass meadows. The manatees are feasting, varieties of fish have returned, eco-tourism is booming, and property values have significantly increased. For more information about Sea and Shoreline and what they’re up to, visit seainshoreline.com. You mentioned the cultural and even religious aspect. Can you expand on that? Because you talked about the salmon a lot and obviously now I know why because you’re a big fisherman.
And even beyond that, I understand that it’s an important issue to you. But those salmon are often a part of these cultures and even the religious aspects of some of these communities. Right? Absolutely. We’re the town where I’m.
speaking to you from in Moscow, Idaho was no until the mid 19th century for thousands of years have been home to the Nez Perce and they were salmon people. They will tell you that they’ve been here since the beginning of time and that one of the foods that sustained their lives and their culture and their villages and their families for that.
long stretch of time with salmon. You know, in their origin story and their creation myth, first there was water and then the salmon came. And you know, their relationship to that creature means almost everything to them. The only comparison I could make is it’s as important to the Nez Perce spiritual belief as the elements of communion are to Catholics. It’s that important. And one of the things that our government has done is disregard that.
the belief that salmon are key to the spiritual as well as physical well-being of indigenous people in this part of the world. You wouldn’t do that if it was a mainstream Christian religion, right? You wouldn’t say, well, you know, the elements in communion just aren’t that important. So we’ll just do away with them and let people, you know, make their own way through an uncertain future. It’s really, it’s an environmental story. The disappearance of salmon is what I’m referring to here, but it’s also, this becomes a human rights issue.
And I think that’s one of the more sort of fascinating and maybe hopefully will inspire some emotions amongst people who pick up the book because these people have been very patient with our federal government. And now we’re in a situation with climate change where time is running out to do something, to do the right thing. And hopefully we’ll manage to at least take a few steps in that direction.
Yeah, let’s talk about the federal government for a bit. The Bureau of Reclamation comes in for some serious criticism throughout the book, obviously. But the politics of these dams in their construction, their removal, it’s all over the book. But it seems like these contentious places, it runs deeper than the typical partisan politics that we see on TV or read in the papers. Am I capturing that correctly? It seems like over that period of time.
everyone has some blame there in that regard. Yeah, you know, what really I think is worth taking a closer look at in this scenario is the corruption of a few small branches of the federal government, the Bureau of Reclamation, the US Army Corps of Engineers. And I guess an apt analogy here might be to think about the way stolen property is treated.
Right? So if I, if I steal your car and tool around here in Moscow, Idaho on a Saturday night, just given the nature of what happens when you steal somebody’s car, you’re not too concerned about washing it and returning it to the place you stole it from. Right? Right. And I kind of feel like on a much grander scale, that’s what’s happened with water resources in this country, particularly in the West is that the beneficiaries of that ill-gotten gains from water control systems.
has made a very few people pretty well off and they’ve been very successful at maintaining the status quo that was established when these systems were built. And I’ll give you a quick example of that. I write about in the book the Westlands Water District in California. And throughout the Obama and into part of the Trump administrations, they managed to cut a deal where…
They are going to get their water from the Colorado. I’d say that’s it’s not true. They don’t get their water from the Colorado system. They get it from the California state water system.
And in an era of climate change where everybody in Southern California particularly is struggling to maintain a viable supply of water, Westlands has cut a deal where they’re going to take ownership of $3 billion worth of public infrastructure, the water control that delivers water to their fields. And they’re also going to be guaranteed water in a fashion that almost no one else in California will be.
So while we’re talking about everybody else making cuts and conserving and just completely rethinking the way that we use water, this particular irrigation district has managed to sew up kind of a 19th or 20th century version of water rights that really doesn’t have any place in a warming, drying world. It’s a little different here. Florida is kind of a mix of that repairing water rights and then prior appropriation. But when we look at these types of…
of projects where you’re talking about irrigating where there are a lot of rules and laws here to govern the more efficient use of it. When we talk about surficial storage for that use, usually it’s a double benefit. So you’re cleaning some historical water quality issue while also maybe providing some water supply. Did those kinds of restrictions exist in some of these systems that you’re talking about? Where they exist, they’ve been ignored.
You know, and I think really, you know, the Eastern seaboard in Florida is definitely different, but the 20th century version of water control and the, off the top of my head, thinking of some of the major ecological disasters that Florida is dealing with at the behest of agricultural interests, I guess that’s what I’m talking about. That’s the commonality in this system is that, again, the virtuous intent, we owe a debt of gratitude to.
farmers and ranchers for putting food on our tables, but they are responsible, just as the rest of us are, for managing water and land in a way that it can be put to good use for many generations to come. And I think what we’re looking at instead is, you know, all the signs are pointing to an agricultural system that is not going to last long into the 21st century unless we start rethinking the way that we do things.
And federal water control has played a key role in sort of thinking about things, not in the long term, but in the short term. And, and so that applies whether you’re in Florida or Idaho or in the middle of the country and on a farm in Iowa or Kansas. It’s the policy itself of free water and electricity for farmers is something that has corrupted our ability to manage resources into the long term.
Yeah, we see that, um, over here and, and, uh, you know, I want to focus on, on your, on your book and, and your experiences, you know, as much as possible. But I think maybe the, the equivalent here is, is perhaps we have a large, large river, the Kissimmee river that flows to Lake Okeechobee, a massive freshwater lake, and then ends up in, in the Everglades, but Army Corps of Engineers, uh, in that, in that, that mid 20th century wisdom, you know, straightens a river, creates a dyke. And then, you know, and the rest is history. And then you spend.
hundreds of millions of dollars, sometimes billions of dollars now here in Florida, undoing a lot of that well-intentioned mess on the part of the federal government. You talk a lot about that in terms of, and I remember one part, you were talking about salmon in, I think it’s the Columbia Basin, where they were trying to reseed or put salmon patcheries and the cost per salmon was insane, but that’s the price in order to get something
to try to survive in a climate and an environment that is not meant for them the way it is with the dams. It was like something like, I wanna say 250 to $600 per salmon. Yeah, it gets higher than that too. Some of the, there’s a hatchery here in Idaho that was built in 2017 and was supposed to help sockeye salmon, which sockeye are a variety of salmon that spawns.
part of their life cycle requires a freshwater lake. And so sockeye swim from the Pacific Ocean, a thousand miles inland and historically spawned up in the, up at six or 7,000 feet in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. And you know, the hatchery, I think they were well into the thousands of dollars per fish. And then they ended up not helping the naturally reproducing fish because as is often the case when you introduce a hatchery fish into a system.
and those fish have been inoculated against specific diseases, they can introduce that disease to the naturally reproducing fish and wipe out part of the population. And that’s exactly what occurred in this hatchery down in Boise. And so not only was it a very expensive endeavor, but it ended up being a biological failure as well. And I think what we need to learn from those kinds of scenarios is that there’s a certain wisdom to…
a natural system that is inherent simply because of the millions of years of evolution that go into the, you know, the development of a river system with its native wild creatures. And we haven’t yet really learned how to honor that inherent wisdom that you find all over the planet and that everywhere you look we seem to be hell-bent on doing away with. I guess to that point, the book seems at times to be both pessimistic
and then hopeful, like all at once. Is that how you see yourself in some of these stories? Like, I want to talk about the Klamath River, but before I do that, is that the impression that you want readers to have? How do you see yourself in that regard? Yeah, you know, I have two kids. They’re gonna be adults soon. They’re both teenagers now. And I think the deal I made when my kids were born is that you give up the privilege of being a full-time pessimist when you have children.
So the deal I made is I can be a pessimist only 20% of the time. 80% of the time I have to try to be optimistic. And my oldest son is going to study environmental science. He’s going off to college in the fall. And I appreciate his outlook on the future, because I think he has managed to cultivate some sense of optimism that these are giant problems, but that they can also be addressed. That gives me hope as well, if somebody from the next generation is already thinking like that.
You have an entire chapter, it’s called, you know, Dam Removal 101, and you talk about a few of the success stories, and I want to talk about one of those, it’s simply because I have some familiarity, because I have some folks that I work with, at a company called Resource Environmental Solutions, and they’re working on the Klamath River Dam restoration, and not the dam removal part, but you kind of end that chapter about the Klamath River at the point of just prior to…
the actual removal and then restoration. Can you talk a little bit about that success story and how you go from the disaster to the end result, which is hopefully the restoration of this habitat in these natural places? Yeah, the Klamath is really a blueprint for what could be done almost anywhere where there’s dams that need to come out because what you had is pretty contentious, drought-stricken river basin and some fairly entrenched water buffaloes as a…
the former chief of the Bureau of Reclamation, Dan Beard calls them just people that, irrigators that have come to view the water and in a given river basin as their sole, as owning all of it, I guess, would be the easiest way to put it. And the first thing that happened is that those people were sort of thoroughly disabused of the notion that they own all the water. And so they got beat in court numerous times, and it turns out they don’t own all the water. So then…
to jump over a whole bunch of things that happened. They were kind of forced to the negotiating table and then kind of a really beautiful thing happened and these commercial fishermen and a few conservationists and farmers found out that they actually like each other. So they, in earnest, sat down around a table and hammered out a deal and they got.
a promise from actually my congressman, my former congressman in the state of Oregon, he is now retired. He told these people, you bring me a deal and I’ll push something through congress. Well, he was making a bet that these people wouldn’t come up with an agreement and he wouldn’t have to push a bill through congress. So they called his bluff and when it was time for him to do something, he didn’t do anything. But nonetheless, these people, again, the develop the relationship that they had developed
dictated their next move, which was, we’re not gonna quit. And they figured out that they didn’t need Congress to take dams out on the climate, that they could make it happen just through the federal relicensing process. And so that’s what they did. They got together and sort of reworked that original agreement so that no congressional authorization was required.
You had a utility company, Pacific Power, that was really interested in getting rid of what they saw as a stranded asset. And so it took 30 years, all told, but next year, all four of those dams are gonna come out. And the thing to keep in mind about that is that on the West Coast, the Klamath Basin was once the third largest producer of salmon along the Western coastline of the United States. The first was the Columbia, the second was the Sacramento-San Joaquin.
And the third was the Klamath. So it’s daunting in an era of climate change to think that maybe we could have some semblance of that back. But one thing that I’ve learned over the years about all Salmonids is they’re way tougher than we give them credit for. And there are such plethora of little gem-like pieces of habitat in a Klamath basin that these fish are now going to have access to that you can’t help it again, be sort of
at least cautiously optimistic that dam removal there is going to yield some positive results. Yeah. And you’ve seen that already, right? That you, I forget exactly which part of the book you talk about where a dam was removed. And even though it wasn’t the entire extent of the river, the amount of time it took for salmon to start making their way back up river was, I think you said like in the course of a year, maybe two at the tops. Is, am I remembering? Yeah. Well, let’s, let’s.
Yeah, let’s talk about an East Coast river on the Gulf of Maine where there’s just been an incredible ecological restoration. The first dam to come out there was the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in 1999. And that’s kind of how I marked the beginning of what you might call the modern dam removal movement.
And one reason that that’s considered the beginning is the results there were so dramatic. There’s a type of fish called, now they call it a river herring, it used to be called an alewife, and it’s an anadromous fish. It spends some time in the ocean and then comes back in freshwater river systems to spawn. And in the ensuing years, since Edwards Dam came out, there’s been several more on the Sebastica and some other rivers in the Gulf of Maine. And now you have…
about five and a half million river herring that are returning to those Gulf of Maine rivers every year. They’re kind of the baseline of the ecosystem in that part of the world, the marine ecosystem in that part of the world. And you went from having probably less than 100,000 of them prior to 1999 to having five and a half million. You know, the turnaround was just remarkable when the Edwards Dam came out 24 years ago now. It marked the beginning of not only a transformation,
for the river, but for the city of Augusta, which because they use the Kennebec River as kind of an open sewer for so many years, literally the backs of the town’s buildings had been turned away from the river. And in the last 25 years, it’s been remarkable to watch in Augusta as the city’s kind of turned to face the river again and make it a focal point of future development. Wow. So there’s been social, ecological.
you know, and even economic returns on that investment. And that’s a story when you start looking at this, that can be told over and over again. It’s remarkable to watch particularly East coast cities where there’s a longer history of industrialization, reincorporate free flowing water into the architecture of the town. And to that end, like you provide an actual, it’s almost like a, here’s how you do it point by point. And working towards.
dam removal. I don’t want to give away the entire book. I think everyone should read it. It’s a fantastic book. But talk about a little bit about how you go about the dam removal 101. Yeah. You know, the low hanging fruit, so to speak, of the dam removal movement is the thousands and thousands of small dams, no taller than 15 feet, that are not serving any particular purpose. And all they need to be removed is funding and a-
and to go through a permitting process to do it safely. And so that was kind of the inspiration behind that chapter when you talk to a group like American Rivers that’s been played a central role in a lot of East Coast dam removals. They’ll tell you that it’s a successful endeavor and that the only thing we need is more money and a quicker timeline to get more of these dams removed. And so that was kind of, I thought.
If we could include a 15 or 20 page instruction manual on how to get a small dam taken out that maybe that would help serve that purpose You know, it’s interesting to look at state like New Jersey and and look at the amount of river restoration that they’ve accomplished over The past 15 or 20 years it made it so that you know, it’d be a really interesting Adventure to fly into JFK with a three-weight
fly rod and take a cab to take a cab to all the within an hour of the city. Whereas suddenly there’s some pretty good trout fishing to be had. And, you know, it’s one of those things that you can point to young people and say, you know what, this is a place that is much better off than it was when I was a kid. And I think in this day and age, that’s a really important thing to be able to, to, to tell young people. All right. Let’s take a quick pause to talk about my friends from res res.
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and the Heartland to coastal estuaries, and the Florida Keys. They focus on restoring floodplains and wetlands and improving water quality, benefiting numerous species that call Florida home. With an unwavering commitment to preserving the state’s unique ecological communities, RES confronts the complexities of Florida’s mosaic landscape with water resources head on. Their creative solutions and innovative approach are helping municipalities, agencies, and local water resource groups pave the way for a brighter future.
With each project, RES upholds long-term stewardship practices, guaranteeing sustainable outcomes that endure. Discover more about their work and commitment to addressing Florida’s environmental challenges by visiting www.res.us. Yeah, I think on the other end of that spectrum, and it was something that I intended on asking earlier, but when you talk about the, you know, these small dams is you talk a little bit about some.
high hazard dams. When you look at, you’ve mapped out, you actually have a map of the United States where you’ve mapped out where these dams exist. I think even a worldwide map as well, where you have high hazard dams. And some of the stories about when you have a failure of these sometimes century old dams that fail, there’s some significant loss of human life there. And so I know it’s a lot more complicated, but
In terms of how to accomplish that, how do folks go about, you give a, I think you give one, at least one example of a place where you had a dam that was going completely defunct. Maybe it was the Klamath where it’s like, it’s becoming a hazard and it just becomes easier to take it down than to risk thousands of people potentially dying. Yeah. I mean, that’s happening all over the country. Remember that the…
lifespan of concrete is no more than about 60 years and you have, you know, abandoned projects in places that are, that, you know, some of these structures are approaching twice that they’re potentially disastrous depending on how large the structure is. I, in the book, I write about an example, uh, in Italy, where a post-war project called Bionte dam was built in a, in a little town called Longaron. I might be screwing up the Italian on that.
But the dam itself didn’t collapse, but the reservoir, the hydrostatic pressure in the reservoir played a role in causing a landslide. So a mile square slab of rock slid into the reservoir and created this super wave that washed over the top of the dam and took out a town of 2,500 people below it. And there was almost 100% mortality rate. And the violence of this collapse or the wave, I guess, that ripped through the town, look, I think there’s some pictures in the book.
and it looks like a war zone. I mean, the wind that that wave created ripped the clothes off of people. As these structures age, you know, you look at…
The snowpack, for instance, in the state of California this year, or in the Southern Sierra, they have three times the normal amount of snow. And all water managers and public safety officials are kind of waiting to see what happens in the first spate of hot weather down there, because these systems were not designed for the kind of sudden variability that we’re having in our weather these days.
So there’s a huge amount of safety considerations. In the book, I interview this expert, the safety engineer from Berkeley named Robert B. And he, you’ll see if you pick up the book, he’s so alarmed by the lack safety standards that we have in our country’s water control projects that you, you know, for a guy who’s studied safety for an entire career, you’d think it would take quite a bit for somebody to just cover their eyes and look the other way. But.
In the interview that I did with him, he said that’s kind of what he’s doing with dams. He feels like a major disaster at this point is almost an inevitability. And that should cause us a great deal of alarm. Well, let’s, if you don’t mind, let’s move down south quite a bit. You toward the end of the book, you the namesake of your publisher, Patagonia, you had to South America to talk about some of these these beautiful natural areas down there and, and the work to
prevent dams coming in. So we’re dealing, you know, as you, as you note in, in the book elsewhere about dam removal in the United States, but there’s still places where, where folks are trying to put in, you know, incredibly large systems, right? Yeah, it’s happening all over the world. The heartening thing about South American dam development is in the nation of Chile. There was a, I guess an uprising that really caught the attention, not only of a lot of Chileans, but a lot of-
people internationally. The short version of the story is that there was an Italian company that had proposed building five dams on the
on the Baker and Pasqua rivers in southern Chile. And there was one person, it kind of started with one person. There’s a cowboy that lives in the Aysen region in Chile who was so alarmed by the prospect of losing the land where he grazes his sheep that he hopped on a horse and rode a few hundred miles to the regional capital, this town called Caique. And that caught the attention of media and they started doing kind of annual marches from their…
part of Iceland region up to this regional capital. And the government wasn’t paying them much attention, but through a sort of series of both lucky and very much strategically planned events, these people, these kind of very rural, not very well resourced locals ended up preventing these five dams from being built. And so it’s kind of a story of what looks like an impossible task to begin with can actually.
very quickly become something that is quite feasible and even certainly desirable. And I think the other part of that that’s been really heartening in sort of the post-Pinache era in Chile is that there’s been this national kind of youth movement. People are really falling in love with the landscape there and with what you can really legitimately term as their homeland, right? And I think that’s partly a function of a different economy than they had.
in the 60s and 70s. But it’s partly because, you know, why does any sort of social movement happen? There was just a recognized need to experience what is beautiful. And I think the reason that I included the chapter on Chile is I sort of feel like that’s something that in this country, the conservation movement has started to steer away from a little bit, is that those aesthetic arguments, the human need to experience beauty, it should be really.
what motivates a lot of our conservation work. It’s hard to get people excited about rising temperatures or a longer hurricane season because that’s just weather, it’s just numbers. But if you can contextualize people’s care for the planet in the places where they live, and so this particular place is worth restoring or defending, then I think that makes for a much more potent conservation movement.
It seems like it and I mean the book alone with the number of the gorgeous photographs, not just of South America but all over the world of these natural places I think really begins to do that idea some justice. I know we don’t have a ton of time left but I’d like to shove you into a kind of a lightning round of sorts and I ask these questions of everyone and I think a lot of these answers I think people will be able to find by.
by reading your book, which again, I encourage people to do, but let’s just, let’s roll with it and you, let’s see what we come up with. Hey, that sounds great. Yeah. What professional accomplishment are you the most proud of? Well, I quite suddenly in 2017 found myself fighting and co-producing a documentary film also, there’s a recurring theme here also ultimately about some dams.
And the name of that movie is Dam to Extinction. It’s a documentary film about the plight of killer whales in the Eastern Pacific Ocean that have evolved to feed almost exclusively on Chinook salmon. And because of the transformation of the Columbia River system from what was once one of the world’s top producers of Chinook salmon into a top producer of hydropower.
These whales are starving to death. And I think in telling that story, we stumbled onto the plight of one particular whale that they named these whales. A mother whale named Telequah pushed her, she had a stillborn calf. And the distress that she could, you could visibly palpably feel caused her to put this dead, this stillborn baby on her snout and push it around.
the coastal waters off of Seattle and the state of Washington for 17 days. She swam over a thousand miles with this thing on her nose. She wouldn’t let it sink to the bottom, so it would start to sink and she would dive down and push it back up and the rest of her fellow whales swam alongside her. There was just a demonstrable show of grief, you know, from one fellow mammal to another and we were able to include that.
footage of that in the film and it caused another significant uprising. I think some of the advocates for those whales started a petition that I think it was on change.org and it now has over a million signatures on it. And it is basically begging the government in the state of Washington to do something about the lack of salmon returning from the ocean to rivers in the Pacific Northwest. And we’re down to less than 1% of historic abundance. And so
I think that’s the thing that is, you know, I’ve chosen to do the kind of work that I do because I feel like we’re in this unique time in history where we’re going to have to undertake some fairly dramatic changes from the way we’ve been doing things the last few hundred years. And if I, you know, if I could draw attention to these issues and make people or, you know, encourage people to have an emotional response, I think that’s kind of the basis of our, you know, activism is that you have to have a connection to the issues that you’re
fighting for and if I’ve managed to do that with that film or in some of my writing and other places I think that’s that’s the thing that I’m most proud of. Yeah I guess that leads me to one of the other questions or you know it has some connection there is like is if you had a chance to go back to say the beginning of your adult life is there something that you would do differently is it to make that case earlier? Yeah absolutely it took me until I was into my 30s to step
my current role as a writer. And, you know, now it’s one of the most heartening things that I get to experience is high school kids and even younger. I think of one activist up in the state of Washington who’s been advocating for salmon and removing dams and the wellbeing of killer whales since she was 10 or 11. And yeah, just sooner and more. That’s the only regret that I would have. I feel like this is vital and necessary work and I’m encouraged by the number of
young people particularly that are recognizing that and taking it on in a much more effective way than I’ve managed to. You kind of nailed down really the last two questions and I’ll make it a two-parter in that regard. Sure. So you spent this part of your career helping to restore these unique and special places. Are you one, optimistic about the future of these places and the battles to come? And then…
What advice would you give to young people who are just entering or they’re interested in, in the world of, you know, whether it be dam removal, advocacy, or environmental restoration in general? Yeah, I’m, I guess I’m like my son. I am cautiously optimistic that we’re going to address some of our major problems where what keeps me up at night is how much we’re going to lose before we get on with the fixing, right? I think if you could characterize.
our species in maybe a sentence or two, it might be something like we’re not nearly as good at long-term planning as we consider ourselves to be, but we can be pretty effective in an emergency. And I feel like this long emergency that we’re still kind of on the front end of with climate change is going to really…
catalyze a transformation of, and hopefully for the best, for our species, for humans, you know? The second part of the question, I would point young people to a quote that I included in the book by a famous Grand Canyon river guide named Martin Litton. Martin was the angel on David Brower’s shoulder as they were negotiating to prevent dams from being built in, on the Colorado River and in and around Grand Canyon in particular. There’s a famous fight that I…
retail in the book about preventing a dam in what is now a dinosaur national monument. And Martin said, don’t ask for what is reasonable, ask for what is right. And I think if there’s a flaw in the modern conservation movement is that they’re not arguing and fighting passionately for what ought to be the world that they want to create. They’re sort of negotiating too meekly over what is. And don’t.
The advice to young people would be don’t compromise that vision of what you think the world can be. And don’t let anybody else talk you into just negotiating over the crumbs of what is. I think that’s really important. That’s why I hope that’s why I wrote the book. And I hope, you know, the words of Martin Linton and some other folks that are in there will cause people to not let go of that more optimistic vision of what the world could be. Well, I think it’s a perfect place to close. And so I’ll once again tell people what the book is. It’s called Cracked.
The Future of Dams and a Hot Chaotic World. Steve, where can folks find this book and your other work as well, including your film and your first book? Let’s see. Probably the first, let’s do the film first. It’s streaming on Vimeo and on Amazon Prime. The film has a website. It’s dam2extinction.com. My first book, I would encourage you to go to the website of any independent bookseller. My favorite is Powell’s Books, because that’s close to home in Portland.
Uh, you can order it there. Certainly like most other books can be found on Amazon. You can, you can order it from there if you can’t find your favorite independent bookseller. And then this latest work, Cracked, you can find on Patagonia’s website. And it’s also for sale in a lot of their retail stores, as well as at a lot of independent booksellers. So I’m plugging your independent bookstore. If you’re lucky enough to live near a town that has a
a bookstore support those folks. They’re the ones that are, you know, not only supporting authors like me, but supporting, I think, a finer vision of the world of literacy, right? I tell listeners, you heard it from Steve, you know where to buy the book down. I’ll put I’ll put links to all those, including your favorite independent bookstore, by the way, and we’ll put that in the episode notes as well so people can find it and find your other work.
Steve Hawley, thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been a real pleasure. Hey, thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it. Hey, you bet. Good luck to you. Yep. Take care. Well, that’s it for this episode. Thanks for listening to Water for Fighting. You can follow the show on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and probably even on Twitter at FLWaterpod. And you can reach me directly at FLWaterpod at gmail.com with your comments and suggestions for who and or what you’d like to know more about. Thanks again to my friends at C&Shoreline and Rez.
I’ll have more information about them in the show notes and website as well. So please be sure to check them out. They’re doing amazing work. Production this podcast is by Lonely Fox Studios. Thanks to Carl Soren for making the best of what he had to work with and Dave Barfield for the amazing graphics and technical assistance. A very special thank you goes out to Bo Spring from the Bo Spring brand for giving permission to use his music for the podcast. The song is called Doing Work for Free and you should check out the band live or wherever great music is sold.
Join me next time for another amazing conversation with someone who’s helped shape how we think about water and the environment in the sunshine state. And at least for this episode beyond until then, keep your whiskey close and your water closer.