The End of the Big Dam Era

Teaching Unit Elements

Large-scale dams suggested engineering mastery over the vagaries of nature and structural social and economic conditions. They enthralled Americans who read into them possibilities for a new, emergent modernity that mixed rural electrification, public power, and industrial growth. But economic growth came at great social and environmental cost. Western dam building in the 1940s and ’50s was particularly tragic for rural indigenous communities. Grand Coulee and the Dalles Dam on the Columbia River, for instance, inundated the river’s last dip-net fishing sites. Garrison Dam on the Missouri River displaced 90% of three affiliated tribes. Environmental costs were equally devastating. Concrete walls trapped sediment, drowned wetlands, and dramatically transformed river ecologies. Salmon symbolized this ecological tragedy, particularly on the Columbia basin where salmon catches plummeted two-thirds by 1960; by the 1990s, several Pacific salmon species were officially “endangered.”

Environmental damage provoked a backlash that overturned the political consensus favoring big dam projects. The Reclamation Bureau precipitated a major battle by including a large hydropower and storage dam in Echo Park, part of Dinosaur National Monument, in the proposed Colorado River Storage Project. Environmental opposition to save the park in the 1950s, spearheaded by the Sierra Club, ultimately forced the Reclamation Bureau to eliminate the dam, giving anti-dam advocates their first major victory. Perhaps more consequential was the organized opposition in the late 1950s and 1960s to a pair of hydropower dams proposed for construction just outside of Grand Canyon National Park. The dams would have turned the Grand Canyon’s southern and northern ends into lakes, drowning rugged portions of the Colorado River. Environmentalists eventually won this fight as well, removing the dams from the project approved in 1968. In lieu of the dams, the Reclamation Bureau built the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station to help meet regional electric power demands.

Multiple factors combined to bring the big dam era to a close. Federal legislation, particularly the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, provided environmental lobbies with powerful legal tools to oppose new dam projects. Political leaders of both parties also disfavored financing expensive new dam projects that lacked both financial justification and ideal building sites. While federal agencies continued to build dams into the 1970s, the heyday of large-scale damming projects was over. Hydroelectricity receded in relative importance as nuclear power proliferated and fossil fuel use continued to skyrocket. Waterpower, which accounted for over a third of the country’s electrical generation in 1940, comprised only 12% in 1980.

The decline of dam building coincided with a movement to dismantle hydropower dams and “restore” rivers. Anti-dam literature and demonstrations in the 1970s focused on Glen Canyon Dam, which inundated a scenic canyon upstream from the Grand Canyon. Edward Abbey, through his Monkey Wrench Gang of eco-saboteurs, and Earth First! activists dreamed of blowing up Glen Canyon. Actual dam removal proved more procedural and politically fraught. New federal legislation in the 1970s and ’80s required dam owners to provide fish passages and meet water quality standards to renew their leases under the 1920 Federal Power Act. Beginning in the 1990s, combinations of local Native American activists, environmental groups, and federal wildlife agencies successfully lobbied to “decommission” dozens of hydropower dams by making the modification requirements for new leases uneconomical. The decommission strategy has been particularly successful in the Pacific Northwest where activists have forced power companies to remove dams from several branches of the Columbia River and, most famously, two sizable dams (each over 100 feet tall) from the Elwha River, just outside of Olympic National Park. The regional-scale federal dams like Glen Canyon, however, seem here to stay.

Hydroelectricity remains a major power source, particularly in the West and Appalachian Southeast but also, at a smaller scale, around the country. Hundreds of dams, most of them small, have been dismantled over the past three decades. The thousands of hydropower dams that remain continue to raise a difficult question: How do we weigh the social and environmental tradeoffs entangled with the nation’s first and oldest renewable energy infrastructure?

To build support for western dam projects, the Bureau of Reclamation published “Lake Powell: Jewel of the Colorado,” an illustrated 1965 booklet celebrating the new reservoir created by Glen Canyon Dam. The Bureau also released a documentary film about the history of the dam’s construction and the ways Americans were using its water, power, and recreational opportunities.

How does the Bureau of Reclamation portray the value of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, compared to the utility of a free-flowing Colorado River?

In the mid-1960s, Congress introduced legislation to build the Marble and Bridge dams on remote and rugged canyons located just above and just below Grand Canyon National Park. The dams were intended to generate hydroelectric power and provide funds for other regional reclamation projects.

In Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, a group of eco-saboteurs plot to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam, which they see as violating a beautiful, wild river. Six years later, a radical new environmental group, Earth First! held its first public protest, dropping a 300-foot plastic “crack” down the side of Glen Canyon Dam. Earth First! contended that mainstream environmental groups were too moderate in the face of the continued destruction of wilderness in the American West.

To generate hydropower for the town of Port Angeles, Washington, a private energy company built two dams, the Elwha Dam in 1913 and the much larger (205 ft. tall) Glines Canyon Dam in 1927. Neither included a fish passage in its design. The dams blocked ninety percent of the Elwha watershed and reduced salmon populations to about one-tenth of the numbers recorded on the river in 1910.

A two minute time lapse video of the removal of the Elwha Dam  and Glines Canyon Dam, produced as part of an exhibit by the Burke Museum, in collaboration with the Seattle Times, Mountaineers Books, and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. 

Blumm, Michael C. and Andrew B. Erickson. “Dam Removal in the Pacific Northwest: Lessons for the Nation. Environmental Law 42, no. 4 (Fall 2012): 1043-1100.

Guarino, Julia. “Tribal Advocacy and the Art of Dam Removal: The Lower Elwha Klallam and the Elwha Dams.” American Indian Law Journal 2, no. 1 (Fall 2013): 114-145.

Harvey, Mark W.T. A Symbol of Wilderness: Echo Park and the American Conservation Movement. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.

Harvey, Mark W. T. “Echo Park, Glen Canyon, and the Postwar Wilderness Movement.” Pacific Historical Review 60, no. 1 (Feb 1991): 43-67.

Lang, William L. “The Columbia River’s Fate in the Twentieth Century.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 50, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 44-55.

McPhee, John. “A River.” In Encounters with the Archdruid. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.

Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.

Smith, Laura. “Resurrection after the ‘Blue Death’: Literature, Politics, and Ecological Redemption at Glen Canyon.” Western American Literature 51, no. 1 (Spring 2016): 39-69.

White, Richard. The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.

Gabriel Lee is currently the Cassius Marcellus Clay postdoctoral fellow in environmental history at Yale University. He is working to finish his first book manuscript, a history of concrete during the Progressive Era, which examines the environmental and social politics of urban infrastructure, industrial architecture, automobile highways, and federal dams.