“Patagonia Sin Represas(Patagonia without dams)!” and “No Alto Maipo(No dams on the Maipo)” are posted throughout paddling destinations here in Chile. There is always a sense of environmental responsibility that accompanies exploring the wilderness, and it is felt deeply here. The fight is alive. Dams are planned to go into two of the tributaries of the Maipo in the next few years, and there are dams planned in other drainages as well. The backlash is visible as you paddle the canyons. Chileans are incensed, and in some cases people from elsewhere fight with them to protect watersheds and other wild areas. Yvon Choinard and Doug Tompkins both are invested heavily in the protection of the Chilean ecosystem. The watersheds here haven’t undergone the vast damming that rivers in the states have sustained. Are they needed?
Dams can be helpful, dams can be destructive. There is a ubiquitous message in the water community that dams are bad, that we don’t want any dams, but I have never heard the full story. Is it bad for the ecosystem? Is it bad for fish, insects, amphibians, mammals, birds? How bad? Is it better to have a nuclear reactor? Is it better to burn coal(which currently provides 50% of our electricity)? Are solar panels more effective, less intrusive? Wind turbines? We only have so many options. We hear that we should fight against the damming of such and such river, but what if we win, then what do they build? They still need power, and they still have money to make. Do they burn more coal? Questions like this linger, but dams have more tangible effects.
Dams affect the whitewater community. They are bad for kayakers because they are built on steep sections of river, our best playgrounds. On the other hand, you have the Narrows of the Green, which runs over 200 days of the year because of a dam. In some sense they cancel themselves out for us. I can’t run Tobin most of the year because it has a dam, but then in the fall it flows for two days a month, which would never happen naturally. Simply put, I don’t think that our loss of recreation is a legitimate reason to not build a dam, because it can open as many opportunities as it destroys. If there are commercial recreational opportunities then there is a legitimate argument stand against the construction of a dam. The Gauley is a great example; that river generates millions of dollars worth of revenue, and thousands of jobs. We lost what has been called California best river to learn on already, the Stanislaus. There is no way to estimate the number of dollars this lost the recreation industry, the number people who could have learned to play on the river, and the number of people whose livelihood was demolished by this bam; the simple fact that it still saddens some of the most well travelled whitewater professionals out there means that some dams just aren’t worth building.
There is much more to this discussion than the opinions of whitewater professionals and recreationalists. Dams effect the ecosystem immediately around it, as well as far downstream. Dams create reservoirs, which destroy riparian habitats directly upstream, and downstream. Riparian ecosystems have adjusted to the ebb and flow of a rivers life, not a permanent lake or drought that exist above and below these concrete giants. People also have become dependent upon life giving rivers. People use rivers to drink from, farm, and bathe. Fish can no longer pass to reproduce and complete their run. The amount of resources it requires to build a dam are nearly unimaginable, the hoover dam weighs 6,600,000 tons and contains enough concrete to pave a highway from San Francisco to New York or a 100 foot wide square 2.5 miles high. That is a mind boggling amount of resources.
But you can’t just damn dams. They don’t burn fossil fuels. With the global climate changing radically because of the emission of carbons, we can’t afford to continue to use coal as our major method for producing electricity. Dams are also somewhat long-lasting, they provide energy for 50-100 years and can be built in a way that allows fish to pass. Dams provide irrigation for farmland as well as power to people near them through the 100% renewable act of mother nature: Precipitation. Dams can help prevent dangerous flood patterns and store water for huge metropolitan areas.
These arguments only tell part of the story. It could be more of a philosophical decision. Do we want a managed, equalized nature, or nature in its fullest, wildest state? Floyd Dominy, the man responsible for Glen Canyon dam on the Colorado as well as hundreds of other dams "argued that if the West were going to be developed, the waters of the Colorado River;s cycle of flood and trickle would have to be managed. Others doubted that intensively developing the West was a wise thing to do in the first place; they thought that the region should be left unpredictable and fragile - that we should discourage settlement, rather than invite it. But Dominy convinced that could be improved; that it could and should, be manipulated and mastered in order to make life less difficult for human beings." (High Country News, 2005) There are many reasons to put dams in and people like Dominy seemed bent on controlling nature for needs.
These arguments stack up against one another. At this point in our history, at least in California, it is much more about relicensing and the destruction of useless dams than it is about debating the construction of new dams. That is not true about Chile, they are just beginning the damming of their rivers. Our history may be able to give them some guidance. Dams aren’t a no brainer, each site has to be evaluated carefully to determine the impact on species, people, and climate change. We need to make sure that the cost of production and its long term environmental changes are worth the clean energy that it is producing. Patagonia sin represas? Probably not, but it is possible that we find a Patagonia Sano(healthy patagonia) despite the dams, if they are implemented correctly.