Floods, dams, and environmentalists

The latest Weekly Standard has an interesting article (subscriber only) by John Berlau of the Competitive Enterprise Institute pointing out that, while everyone loves levees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, “for years now, the left has been deeply ambivalent about the most logical and time-tested mitigator against the threat of city-wide and regional floods: dams.”

Berlau has some affection for the old-style liberalism of Franklin D. Roosevelt, at least for its “no-nonsense views on dealing with nature”:

At the 1935 dedication of Hoover Dam, FDR hailed the taming of a “turbulent, dangerous river” and the “completion of the greatest dam in the world.” He proudly noted that the dam on the Colorado River was “altering the geography of a whole region,” calling what had existed before “cactus-covered waste” and “an unpeopled, forbidding desert.” … About the river he said bluntly that “the Colorado added little of value to the region this dam serves.” In the spring, he said, farmers “awaited with dread the coming of a flood, and at the end of nearly every summer they feared a shortage of water that would destroy their crops.”

By contrast, the modern environmentalist left is represented by veteran journalist Jacques Leslie, author of the recently published book, In Deep Water: The Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment, who criticizes the “Rooseveltian vision, arising out of the New Deal, built into the Hoover Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority, enthralled with its seeming capacity to foster prosperity by subjugating nature.” In Berlau’s words,

to Leslie, damming the Colorado River was a damn shame, and he pushes for returning it “to its virgin state: tempestuous, fickle, and in some stretches astonishing.” He acknowledges that if you took away the dams and the hydroelectric power they provide, you would also “take away modern Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix” as well as the nearby former desert outpost known as Las Vegas. But in exchange for this major subtraction from civilization as we know it, Americans would be able to marvel at a “free-flowing river” and “an unparalleled depository of marine life.”

This change in vision has also had practical consequences:

Support for dam removal and opposition to new dams have become a staple among modern environmentalists, giving rise to organizations whose only agenda is to stop dams. American Rivers, for example, brags about how many dams have been decommissioned and has as its slogan “Rivers Unplugged.” The Berkeley-based International Rivers Network does similar work in Third World countries, where dams are even more crucial for power and flood control. This sea change on dams illustrates a larger shift of the left concerning technology and the nature of man.

Berlau also notes that “one of the main obstacles, before Katrina, to building and fortifying levees, as well as creating more innovative flood barriers, was put up by environmentalists”:

In 1977, the group Save Our Wetlands successfully sued the Army Corps of Engineers to halt the construction of large floodgates intended to prevent Gulf of Mexico storms from overwhelming Lake Pontchartrain and flooding New Orleans. The gates, the environmentalists said, would have hurt wetlands and marine life, although the Corps had already done an environmental assessment to the satisfaction of environmental regulators. Many experts believe the gates could have greatly reduced the impact of Katrina. “It probably would have given [the people of New Orleans] a better shot,” says Daniel Canfield, a renowned professor of aquatic sciences at the University of Florida.

Then, in the 1990s, the Army Corps of Engineers tried to upgrade 303 miles of levees along the Mississippi River, telling the Baton Rouge Advocate in 1996 that a levee “failure could wreak catastrophic consequences on Louisiana and Mississippi.” But the anti-dam American Rivers, along with eco-groups such as the Sierra Club and state chapters of the National Wildlife Federation, sued, alleging harm to “bottomland hardwood wetlands.” This resulted in the Corps doing another environmental impact study and holding off some work for two years.

The Corps compromised with the anti-dam activists in other ways. As Ron Utt notes in a Heritage Foundation study, the Corps began spending hundreds of millions of dollars on environmentally correct projects like “aquatic ecosystems” instead of flood control. The distraction from the Corps’s mission continued from the Clinton to the Bush administration and is something Bush can legitimately be blamed for.

Interestingly, Berlau’s model is Western Europe — which, as he notes, is “usually a favorite reference point for liberal activists and the media,” and which in this case is not exactly a model of “progressive” attitudes (unless we mean “progressive” in the old-fashioned sense of being dedicated to human welfare).

After a North Sea storm in 1953, the Netherlands, half of which is below sea level, set out to dam every last major body of water. The last of these were ultramodern dams built in the 1980s. In the United States, The Weekly Standard was virtually alone in suggesting that Lake Pontchartrain could be dammed along Dutch lines. (See James R. Stoner Jr., “Love in the Ruins,” September 26, 2005.) London, which sits below the high tide of the Atlantic waterways, has also had severe problems with the flooding of the Thames River. So, in the ’80s, gates were built that can rise as high as five stories. The Dutch and the British are sensitive to the environment, but only to a point. They try to regulate water levels to accommodate the native fish. But neither country is undertaking massive projects to restore swamps or, in the eco parlance, “wetlands.”

The environmentalist crusade against dams is curious for other reasons. The same activists who campaign for hydrogen-powered cars, for example, rail against the hydroelectricity produced by dams. As environmental journalist Gregg Easterbrook pointed out in his 1995 book A Moment on the Earth, a dam “burns no fossil fuel and emits no greenhouse gases, smog or toxic or solid wastes.” Take away dams, and folks will have to rely on other energy sources such as coal …

Quoting Canfield, Berlau asserts that “the anti-dam movement is not mainly about science, but rather philosophy, or even theology” — the ideal of nature in a pristine state.

Having looked at some passages from Deep Waters, and at the feature on it and the interview with Leslie at Salon.com, I’m not sure Berlau’s representation of the book is entirely fair. I don’t think he’s actually calling for the Colorado river dams to be dismantled, and he acknowledges the benefits of the dams in the 20th Century (even crediting the Hoover dam and the power it produced as a factor in winning World War II). He believes that the big dams will outlive their usefulness some day, but places this date500 to 1,000 years into the future. His discussion of the dam’s negative consequences stresses soil damage and erosion, not just the value of a “free-flowing river,” and he notes that the depletion of groundwater in China due to damming may bring China’s agricultural successes to “a grinding halt.” In the Salon interview, at least, Leslie does not seem to lack regard for human well-being: While he says that we will need to reduce our energy consumption eventually, he says that this may be done in “relatively painless” ways and emphasizes new technologies. At the end of the interview he says:

The needs that call a dam into being may be so big as to be hard to ignore. It’s hard to say that people of developing nations should be deprived of water, particularly when one in five people on the planet lack enough for their basic needs. But I think if we applied the standards of the World Commission on Dams — if we examined every cheaper alternative and priced dams according to their true value — we would build far fewer of them. And I’m willing to live with that standard. Building dams willy-nilly on every river is insanity.

However, Leslie does regard the preservation of indigenous tribal cultures as a worthy end in itself (even if those cultures are characterized by oppressiveness and brutal sexism?), and he does suggest that the “aesthetic value of a flowing river” may be a good reason to take down the dam that ensures San Francisco’s water supply. So maybe he’s more of a zealot than his moderate presentation lets on. And, when he talks about the logic of market-based water pricing, not all of his ideas seem to be well thought out. For instance, he says:

I’m certainly no economist, but there’s no question that a pricing system that took into account the true cost of constructing a dam and of having to dismantle it years later, as well as the many environmental impacts, would have a good effect. … I think the only way people are going to value water the way they should is to have to pay a substantial amount for it. We would need to subsidize the poor so that they’re not paying the full price for water, but there’s no question in my mind that farmers have got to start paying fairly for irrigation.

Yet charging farmers more for irrigation is inevitably going to affect food prices — hurting the poor the most, of course.

My correspondent Mark B., a frequent poster on this blog who has a background in the geosciences (and is very critical of radical environmentalism, to the point of believing that the Clinton administration leaned too far in that direction), has this to say:

I think that [Berlau] greatly overstates the ability of dams to prevent a Katrina-type catastrophe, but I do think he has a point about the anti-dam mania. [Leslie] definitely has a valid point as well — there was a dam-building frenzy from the 1920’s through the 50’s in this country, and a lot of poorly-thought-out dam projects were constructed. The early Colorado River dams, built at the turn of the 20th Century, were fairly small and on the whole beneficial; the Hoover Dam project, on the other hand, represented the 30’s fascination with heavy industry and concrete (witness Stalin’s 5-Year Plans). Glen Canyon Dam was the turning point – there was no real need to dam that part of the Colorado, save to provide Los Angeles with cheap power, and the sedimentation rates in Lake Powell are appalling. The end of the dam binge came with the collapse of the extremely poorly-designed and -constructed Teton Dam in 1972 — after that, it became virtually impossible to permit a new dam project, and in fact a major movement to remove dams took root.

At this point, I’m one who believes that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. I don’t favor extravagant new dam projects, but I think that small dams are still very valuable in local flood control, and there’s no question that hydropower is the cleanest, cheapest energy source we have.

What do I (with my admittedly modest background of a single course in environmental biology I took at Rutgers University to fulfil a science requirement) think about all this? There seems to be strong evidence that many dams have caused environmental damage that poses hazards to human beings, not just to some quasi-religious idea of Nature’s Temple. To that extent, surely, caution is in order. I also wonder if this has to be an either/or question: plow full speed ahead with Rooseveltian hubris or bow humbly before nature’s magnificence. Surely, for instance, modern technology can find some ways to mitigate the environmental degradation associated with big dams; surely, when building new dams, we can and should take into account lessons from the past. Surely it’s not a question of either damming up every river or standing in the way of every dam yelling “Stop!”

Finally, it’s interesting to ponder the ironies of this debate. Free-market champions admire grandiose, quasi-socialist, big-government construction projects. Progressives put esthetics over the livelihood of the poor. What a tangled web.


Filed under Uncategorized

8 responses to “Floods, dams, and environmentalists

  1. Paul

    New Orleans will be rebuilt and someday those levees will give way again. Nature does not have a memory !

  2. rick

    “Progressives put esthetics over the livelihood of the poor.”

    I think they are just ignorant on the subject and what the consequences will be, and I think your characterization here was unfair and fruitless.

  3. Anonymous

    The Glen Canyon Dam – the dam that created Lake Powell – is indeed broadly regarded by westerners as a mistake, a remarkable fact considering that electric power and flood control generated by the dam benefit these same westerners. The lake is filling with sediment faster than predicted (the Colorado river is one of the siltiest rivers in the US) and it’s only a matter of decades (not centuries as the BLM assured us) before the basin is so full of silt that it can no longer store significant quantities of water, and the hydro turbines become useless.

    After the dam is torn down it probably won’t take very long for the silt to wash away, and the canyon will be restored almost to its natural state. The best that can be said for the dam is that its long-term damage is minimal.

  4. reader_iam


    But if people are “admittedly ignorant” on the subject and the consequences, then how can they so vigorously advocate what they do? Where’s the integrity in that?

    More on point, why should others not question their credibility, if this is the case?

    (Note the “if’s,” please.)

  5. Revenant

    But if people are “admittedly ignorant” on the subject and the consequences, then how can they so vigorously advocate what they do?

    Because they don’t know that they are ignorant.

    Still, though, one shouldn’t lump environmentalists together with progressives. There’s certainly a significant degree of overlap, but there is a sizable chunk of the environmentalism movement that is explicitly anti-human and simply doesn’t care if people suffer or die. PETA and the ELF are excellent examples of this sort of thinking; Jacques Leslie is as well, albeit in a much milder way.

  6. jw

    The whole thing seems strange to me. Engineers have many tools to look at Cost-Benefit analysis, Failure analysis and such. Does it not seem that we should put a group of decent engineers to the task of answering the question “What is the best solution, given current knowledge, to this problem?”

  7. Revenant

    Does it not seem that we should put a group of decent engineers to the task of answering the question “What is the best solution, given current knowledge, to this problem?”

    That’s what they did in the 1930s.

    The reason it doesn’t work is that many of the costs and benefits aren’t objectively quantifiable. Is a beautiful valley more valuable than a power station? Depends on who you are and where you live. Ultimately it comes down to somebody saying “power for Las Vegas is more important than this pretty little valley”.

  8. Anonymous

    “Progressives put esthetics over the livelihood of the poor.”

    That’s just a cheap, ignorant remark. You really ought not post on subjects about which you are admittedly so lacking in knowledge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s