Sold-out crowd cheers for DamNation in Boise

A sold-out crowd of 200 gathered in Boise March 23 to view DamNation, a new documentary about deadbeat dams in the U.S. Photo by Cody Gittings.

From left to right, IRU board member Tom Stuart, Boise salmon advocate Reed Burkholder, DamNation co-director and editor Ben Knight and IRU’s Greg Stahl discuss dams and what they mean for Idaho’s endangered salmon following the film’s screening on March 23. Photo by Cody Gittings.

There’s a culminating scene in the new documentary DamNation in which a group of protesters paints a huge dashed line and pair of scissors on the side of 200-foot Matilija Dam in Ventura County, California. As the graffiti appeared under the white glare of headlamps in this time-lapse footage, the sold-out crowd at The Flicks in Boise cheered.

The crowd’s enthusiasm for this act of defiance might seem misplaced, but it speaks volumes to the power of this film to reach people. It was a real-time illustration of the film’s central point: the tide in the United States is turning against many of its aging and unneeded dams—what we at IRU call high-cost, low-value dams.

“The history of thinking in the western world is: radical ideas eventually can become conventional,” said David Montgomery, a University of Washington geomorphology professor whose commentary helps anchor the film. “A couple decades ago it was radical in terms of thinking you could take a dam out—it was unthinkable. Go back 50 years, it was legitimately crazy talk. The conversation’s changed.”

DamNation, owned and distributed by Patagonia, screened in Boise on Sunday, March 23, as part of the Treefort Film Festival, and with attendance as the measure was the festival’s most popular film. In 90 minutes the filmmakers tell the story of our nation’s construction of more than 75,000 dams and the destruction that many of them inflict on people, fish, communities and local economies. From Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River to the film’s particular focus on the Columbia and Snake rivers of the Pacific Northwest, DamNation is an eye-opening, passion-inducing, forceful film that accurately illustrates that the era of dam building has ended while the era of dam deconstruction has dawned.

DamNation is also more than an inspiring story; it’s a call to action. As part of the film’s distribution in cities throughout the United States, signatures are being collected for a petition that will be sent to President Obama and other key elected leaders calling for removal of the four low-value, high-cost lower Snake River dams that inflict an extreme toll on Idaho’s endangered salmon and the communities that depend on them.

At Idaho Rivers United we’ve been working more than 20 years to restore our wild salmon and steelhead runs, which were decimated by the four lower Snake River dams downstream. We work every day with elected leaders and the media. We crunch numbers and analyze fish returns. We’ve successfully worked with our campaign partners to make our case in court, winning added protections for salmon and steelhead and paving a path toward ultimate restoration of this world-class resource. Most importantly, we mobilize people to take action. But to paraphrase Robert Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep.

“Like all constructed things, dams have a finite lifetime,” Montgomery said in the film. “It’s not time to pull out every dam in the country; that would be economically foolish. But it would be just as foolish not to rethink every dam in the country and try and decide which are the ones that actually still make sense in the twenty-first century, and which are the ones where we can get more value both economically, culturally, aesthetically, morally and ecologically out of a river system by sending it part way back to the condition it was in naturally.”

The bottom line is that we can’t do our work without you, the people of Idaho, the residents of the Pacific Northwest and citizens everywhere who value healthy communities and fisheries over government waste. Restoration of our rivers, fish and fishing-dependent communities is about the people who want responsible management of our rivers. It’s the passion of individuals like you that makes it happen.

As it’s conveyed in DamNation, the science and economics are clear. Four high-cost, low-value dams on the lower Snake River are decimating Idaho’s one-of-a-kind salmon and the communities that depend on them, and it’s up to us to ask our elected leaders for change. So please join me in signing the petition, and together we can make a difference for our endangered salmon.