DamNation is an environmental documentary on the legacy of the dam-boom in the USA. Its main focus is on the harm done to the migratory fish species (e.g. salmon and trout) and in general to the river ecosystem. A good part of the movie focuses on the emotions of wide variety of people (e.g. Native Americans, farmers, dam engineers/mechanics, environmentalist, archaeologists ?hippies?, tourists, fishermen etc.) towards some badly engineered and economically ineffective dams in the US.
I must admit, when I saw the trailer (click the link or scroll down at the end of this text), I expected that the movie will be one of those typical green ones: one-sided and manipulative. So it took me a while to start watching it. I was nicely surprised that the other side of the story is not completely omitted, although it could have been developed a bit more. But then again, this is an environmental documentary, so I shouldn’t have expected to see the positives of damming a river.
The movie triggered a tiny controversy in me. As I mentioned before, I studied how to design large dams in my first university (UACEG, Bulgaria). For 5-6 years I was fascinated by the idea that a human can actually make those huge structures that change the landscape in such a dramatic way. I still find them beautiful. The thing is, we were studying the civil-engineering part, the hydraulics, all the details on how to chose the location, how to design the different structures (spill ways, tunnels, water towers etc.), how to chose the turbines, how to design the hydro-power plant building, what types of dams are there, how to chose the materials, how many types of concrete to use and for which part of the dam, how to organise the building process, how to monitor the dam after it is built. We even studied for a whole semester how to design fish passes (or fish ladders) and how to make an environmental impact assessment. Not only that, but then I went on an internship for 3 months to Colmar (Alsace, France) and actually designed some real fish passes as part of river corrections or river “restoration” projects.
So, on one hand I really enjoyed what I was doing back then. I still feel the trill when I’m at a dam; when I look at a dam I see all the work and all the thinking behind it. I can imagine the drawings and the countless hours spent on reworking details. However, the movie shows the ugly side of the story. It shows what happens when the dam stops serving its purpose or when it was badly designed or unnecessary in the first place.
The movie also reminded me about our Bulgarian second mini-boom in hydro-power development in the last 10-15-20 years (second and mini, because it can’t compare to the dam boom in the 60’s and 70’s, see the large dam infographic). Small private hydro-power plants appeared everywhere they could, incl. upstream of my village Mala Tsarkva, hidden high in the Rila mountain, on Cherni Iskar (or Black Iskar, which is one of the 3 rivers that join into the river Iskar).
Next to the dams and the hydro-power plants, there were also the river corrections… the ones where straight concrete river channel with a rectangular or trapezoid cross section is built as a flood prevention and land reclamation measure (?). Anyway, I left the job and the country to study “something more environmental”. The “more environmental thing” led me in a completely different direction, though. So, nowadays I’m only a spectator of the hydro-power development.
These days, the hydro power and the damming are not popular only in Bulgaria, but also in Albania (see the Guardian article by Arthur Neslen).
To conclude, DamNation is a beautiful and touching movie, which is more to the environmental side of the story. It challenges and provokes. I may not agree with everything in it, but I do believe it is important to see/show/acknowledge that there is tremendous environmental impact next to the economic gain. If I were teaching at my first university, I would definitely show this to my students, so we could have a discussion on good/bad practice, pros/cons on hydro-power energy and dam construction.
- National Geographic: check out the video about the demolition of the nearly 100-years-old Condit Dam at the White Salmon River in Washington state;
- International Rivers: check the video showing the dam development worldwide since 1800
- DamNation press kit: cool stills from the movie and some information about the making and the people behind it.
- Don’t hesitate to leave comments with other articles or documentaries on the topic… or share your opinion about the movie
All photos used in this post are downloaded from the DamNation press kit (photographers: Matt Stoecker, Mikal Jakubal, and Ben Knight)