Why is this Interesting? – The Dam Edition

This year in honor of World Water Day (Monday, March 22nd) I returned once again to a favorite newsletter, Why is this Interesting? to guest author on how the once-polarizing attitudes toward dams in the west are shifting as new environmental and economic priorities emerge.

(Previously, The Paquete Edition and The Fermentation Edition)

On infrastructure, water, and nature

Nick Parish (NP) has been a friend of WITI since his days as a junior reporter on the NY Post’s sports desk. He has since worked in editorial, strategy, product, and org design, and currently lives in Portland, Oregon. He’s a fly-fishing mentor to Noah, and is focused on raising awareness around conservation and sustainability issues central to the sport. – Colin (CJN) 

Nick here. Dams have always divided. 

Some see them as technological marvels, helping communities flourish by putting water to work. Some see them as a marker on the vainglorious trail to ecological collapse, monuments to the belief that behind tons of concrete and steel, our civilization can conquer nature.

Along with the railroad, barbed wire, and the reservation system, across the American West dams have measured the cost of progress to nature and culture. Traditionally, the answer to “What good is a dam?” has fallen into one of two camps: authority or outsider, empire-builder or no-hoper. John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid portrays one such struggle, between the Sierra Club and Bureau of Reclamation. It’s a contest between cutoff jeans fringing free love-tanned thighs and Stetsons topping polyester action slacks. The empire’s hell-bent on “flooding the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get a better look at the ceiling,” the hippies on saving it. In fiction, Chief Brompton of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestexperiences the fracturing of his culture at the mechanistic levers of the Combine. A dam subsumes his identity and voice along with the traditional economies around Celilo Falls—the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America—as they are inundated by the Columbia. 

But this divisive portrayal may not be shaping the future of water—water meaning agriculture, economies, and life—in the west. Recent developments have moved former foes beyond political ideology and outmoded stereotypes.

Keep Reading…