By Mitchell Clute
The film DamNation is without a doubt the most inspiring documentary ever made about dam removal—and not just because it’s the only major film devoted to the subject. Winner of the Audience Choice Award at the 2014 Telluride and SXSW film festivals, DamNation is not your average talking-head documentary. It makes its case not so much through argument and persuasion as through the sheer beauty of its imagery. The filmmakers have managed to take what would seem to be a static and unexciting subject—dams—and turn it into a compelling, gorgeous and thought-provoking film.
The film’s producer, Matt Stoecker, is a biologist and photographer focused on restoring rivers and wild fish populations through his company Stoecker Ecological. He has conducted studies in dozens of California watersheds, assessing habitat, taking stock of native species, identifying barriers on fish migration routes—and shooting countless hours of stunning underwater imagery of salmon and steelhead trout populations in their native habitat to bring this underwater world to those on land.
At the 2011 Nevada City Film Festival, Stoecker was approached by his long-time friend Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia. Chouinard suggested the time was right for a film on dams, with the three largest dam removals in US history about to begin in Washington State—the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in 2011, and the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams on the Elwha River in 2012.
Stoecker signed on, never imagining the film would take more than three years to complete. In the wake of the film’s success, Stoecker spoke with Calmful Living about the making of DamNation, and why its message resonates with so many people.
Calmful Living: What was your intention in making DamNation—and how have audiences responded to it?
Matt Stoecker: We wanted to create a visually stunning film that would make people care more about rivers and about the destruction that dams cause, but we also wanted to make an inspirational film that would get people involved.
We knew we’d have white-water kayakers, fly fishermen and environmental groups excited about the film; but what’s been one of the most rewarding things is the diversity of the audiences that come to the film all over the country, in both red and blue states. A lot of people have never thought about dams, but this is an issue that literally affects everyone. Dams touch on so many issues—history, anthropology, social issues, clean energy, water use, drought, fisheries and recreation. The film strikes a chord in a lot of people, young and old, who weren’t interested in rivers or fishing beforehand.
OC: As filmmakers, did you have a particular political agenda in making the film?
MS: Well, many pro-dam folks say the film is one-sided, but we reached out to a lot of pro-dam folks who chose not to be involved. I think one of the main preconceptions we need to change is that dams are a clean form of energy. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We didn’t want to bog the film down in technical information, but research shows that dams and reservoirs are one of the main contributors to methane gas on the planet because they’re full of decomposing plant matter. We’ve been sold this myth that hydropower is a clean form of energy. If you’re fiscally conservative, dams don’t make sense because we’re wasting billions of dollars a year maintaining outmoded dams and operating fish hatcheries as mitigation measures.
There are also tribal rights and social justice issues at work. It’s really sad to see how dams have literally destroyed the way of life for many tribes. These annual runs of salmon that they harvested and stored for winter were central to their culture, and dams wiped them out. But taking out dams can restore these older ways of life more quickly than we ever imaged, with the older generations teaching the younger ones how to fish again. Some people have asked why environmentalists are against everything. But if you’re against a dam, you’re for a river. The people who make these dam removal projects happen are just normal, everyday people who care about their rivers.
OC: From your perspective, are there any good dams?
MS: For me, it depends on your time frame. Since the time of Jefferson, we’ve built 75,000 dams in this country—about a dam a day. We have tens of thousands of dams that serve zero function, provide no hydropower and are filled with sediment. These are deadbeat dams that no one is opposed to removing. Next are dams that provide a small amount of benefit but huge harm, like the dams on the lower Snake River that hopefully will be taken out within a decade. Finally, there are the huge ones like Hoover Dam and Grand Coulee Dam, which are clearly not coming out soon. But I think of dams like coal-fired power plants—as a harmful way of generating energy, and one that will be phased out over time as other, more efficient forms of energy come on board. We’re done building dams in this country. I hope in twenty-five years they’ll be seen as obsolete relics.
OC: What about the economic impacts of dam removal?
MS: There have been studies on the Snake River dams finding that, in Idaho alone, removing the dams could add as much as $500 million a year to the local economies because of the rebound in fish populations and the tourism generated by rafting and kayaking. It’s interesting to note that the four dams proposed for removal on the Klamath are owned by Warren Buffett through his energy subsidiaries, and when he ran the numbers he said, “Let’s get rid of them.” He also owned the dam on the White Salmon River that’s featured in the film. When Warren Buffett decides dam removal makes sense, that’s a good sign. We can save a lot of money if we replace hydropower with wind or solar—and that doesn’t even take into account the natural capital and the benefits that a healthy river provides for water quality and wildlife habitat. More and more people are beginning to recognize the economic value of a healthy environment.
Want to watch DamNation? Click HERE to download it now.
Find out more about the film and how to host a screening at DamNationfilm.com.
And discover what Calmful Living contributing editor Mitchell Clute thought about the film in his review.