Western states are demolishing dams. This observer says Glen Canyon Dam's days are numbered

By Mark Brodie
Published: Thursday, November 30, 2023 - 12:21pm

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Demolition of the first of four dams set to be taken down on the Klamath River in California finished up earlier this month.

All four dams are set to be removed by this time next year. Richard Parker says that more across the country could follow.

Parker is an author and journalist, and recently wrote in the LA Times about proposals to demolish even more dams, and the role nature is playing in that.

He joined The Show to talk more about it.

MARK BRODIE: Richard, how are folks assessing the state of dam infrastructure, especially in the West right now? Like what is the state of dams in this part of the world?

RICHARD PARKER: Well, I I think that what is going on is that people are reassessing the economic value of dams vs. the environmental problems that they have caused, certainly in the West. In the East, it's a little bit different. Those dams are generally not used for hydroelectric or irrigation purposes. So I think what we're seeing generally across the country and specifically in the West is a reevaluation of the cost benefit analysis of dams. Now, environmentalists have often railed against dams because of their environmental harm, because of their aesthetics. But the ruling force right now is the cost of maintenance, which has been deferred, vs. the economic benefits of hydropower and the lack of water in the West. So the economics of dams have completely changed.

BRODIE: When you talk about maintenance, what kinds of things have to happen for dams to keep them operating, I guess, fully efficiently.

PARKER: They have to be shored up with steel and concrete regularly. In fact, and, you know, the hydroelectric equipment that's inside some dams needs to be maintained. And what's happened is that the costs, which will run into the millions, tens of millions in many cases, has simply been deferred by the operators by the hydroelectric services, by the water districts, you name it. 

BRODIE: So those repairs that maintenance just hasn't been done over the years. And I would imagine like many things, if you put it off long enough, it becomes more and more like exponentially, more expensive to do it if, and when you decide to do it.

PARKER: Exactly. It's sort of like owning a car. You have to regularly put money into the maintenance of that car, whether it's oil changes or changing the timing belt or tires. I mean, it costs money to keep these things running, and when you defer that the cost just gets bigger and bigger and bigger as you noted, you know. There are also better and cheaper ways to generate electricity in the West, whether it's wind turbines or solar panels, farms, these dams don't make economic sense.

BRODIE: Yeah, I'm curious how important to this debate it is that there are those other forms of renewable energy that there is solar and wind, and other forms of renewable energy, not just hydroelectricity anymore.

PARKER: It's very important. And we also have something new in the equation, and that is the huge surge in population that the Southwest has seen in the last I don't know, 30-40 years, right? So you have cheaper sources of energy which are readily available, you know, and the kinds of, of maintenance that those things will require is comparatively miniscule to hydroelectric power. So we have that. But the other big part of the equation I think is that, you know, a lot of these dams are also used for irrigation purposes, and they're not proving to be reliable sources of water anymore because largely because of climate change. And so you have an unusual, you know, coalition of sort of political forces that are coalescing with one another. Environmentalists have been joined by farmers along the Colorado River in advocating the destruction of some of the dams on that river. At the same time, Native Americans have been instrumental in all of this by asserting their fishing rights for the north. And so the coalition of forces against dams is quite large, and it's only going to grow because cities need water, too.

BRODIE: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that because as you mentioned, environmentalists have long opposed these dams. But it seems anyway that it's significant that other groups including farmers and Native American communities are now sort of joining that, that opposition to dams. It seems as though the, the number of people who are supportive of these dams is kind of dwindling.

PARKER: It is very much so. I mean, even some cases the utilities, I forget the name, on the Klamath in Northern California have voluntarily agreed to the destruction of the dams. 

BRODIE: Well, so what goes into destroying a dam? Like, I would imagine you can't just like, put some dynamite in there and blow it up. Like there's gotta be more to it than that, right.

PARKER: It's a lot of heavy equipment, and you've got to make sure that there's a diversion channel for the water. And you're right, it's not as easy as, you know, a Wile E. Coyote episode with the TNT. But it, it doesn't take terribly long. The destruction of the iron gate near the Oregon, California border is complete. It took about six months maybe. And so, you know, you've got a free flowing river in that section. So it's not that tough. I think something like the Hoover, you know, would be tougher. But a lot of these dams are a combination of steel, concrete and rocks from the neighboring area that were excavated for the construction.

BRODIE: So, if you had to guess, would you say that the days are numbered for, for example, the Hoover Dam and the Glen Canyon Dam.

PARKER: I think for Glen Canyon. It didn't reach dead pool, the part where you can't generate any power, but it was still only about 1,000 feet deep, and that's still just short of dead pool. So, yeah, I think that dam is, is certainly in a political sense, history, because of the coalition that now opposes it. The Hoover could be more complicated, it probably will be more complicated frankly.

BRODIE: How so?

PARKER: Well, just because it's a more towering and sophisticated in construction terms, sort of dam. So, I mean, that would cost probably more to remove. And that will be, you know, a considerable discussion, but also taking down the Hoover would change all the water rights and, and, and so that's a big deal. 

BRODIE: Well, so is there still a thought that at this point, if enough dams on the Colorado River come down, that it could help restore the health of the river overall?

PARKER: Oh, absolutely. The volume of river water that would reach its natural conclusion in the Sea of Cortez would increase, you know, and there would be more water for cities and, you know, for farmers and ranchers for, you know, some period of time. I mean, the big factor of course is climate change, and that has to do a lot with snow pack. But yeah, I think taking down many, if not all the dams would increase water output. There's just no question.

BRODIE: All right, Richard. Thank you so much for the conversation. I really appreciate it.

PARKER: I enjoyed it, Mark. Thank you very much.

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