Beyond the Power Struggle: The Science and Values of Sustainable Hydropower

March 5, 2014

Doug Garletts, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, inspects a fish trap below Lookout Point Dam located on the Middle Fork of the Willamette River at Lowell, Oregon. Photo: ©Bridget Besaw

Dams are not subtle.

They are giant structures that confront the Earth’s fundamental forces and elements. Defying both water and gravity, dams almost always win.

The Earth has two geomorphic features that people tend to compare to cathedrals: towering mountains and yawning canyons. Although in only a few places have we torn down whole mountain ranges, we’ve filled in thousands of canyons.

Removing a mountain range requires us to do all the work ourselves, stone by stone. But with a canyon we can build a single dam wall and let water do the rest, rising month by month, year by year, until every last altar, nave, and cloister has been filled.

For those whose taste in metaphor runs to the physiological, rather than architectural, river networks are such clear analogs to our body’s circulatory system that dams can be saddled with the easy analogy of arterial blockage — if not fatal, then at least severely debilitating.

Aorta blockers and cathedral fillers – it’s easy to see why fighting dams is coded deep in the DNA of environmentalists.

In fact, the environmental movement cut its teeth fighting dams. A list of those battles is a list of place names: Hetch Hetchy, Glen Canyon, Dinosaur, Storm King, Stanislaus, South Yuba. Like other lists of place names steeped in conflict—Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg—the roll call evokes the sweep of history, of defeat and victory.

Fighting dams. It’s in environmentalists’ DNA.

But The Nature Conservancy has a tradition of forging collaborations with those who plan, build and finance dams. In fact, that collaboration is central to our ongoing work in freshwater conservation. At first glance, that approach sounds hard to square with the aforementioned history, and may even lead many of our members and fellow environmentalists to conclude we have become Genetically Modified Organisms – environmentalists who have somehow swapped out some essential sequence of our DNA.

But let me explain why this collaboration is essential right now—particularly now as the rate of dam building has increased dramatically in the past decade, largely driven by the construction of hydropower dams to meet growing demands for energy.

For starters, that roll call of dam battles has a lot more defeats than it does victories. The win-loss record alone suggests the need for tactical diversity: are there other ways to protect rivers?

To answer that question, let’s look deeper at the Conservancy’s genome. Our DNA has a number of strands that lead us toward some different tactics for engaging on hydropower dams.

First off, our DNA strongly expresses pragmatism and collaboration. We make deals and emphasize finding solutions, and to do that we’re willing to collaborate with people with whom we may differ on important issues.

For example, the Conservancy joined the Penobscot Restoration Trust, which had been formed by other NGOs and the Penobscot Indian Nation, and bought three dams on the Penobscot River from a hydropower company. Two of those dams have since been removed and the third will be bypassed.

Ultimately, this collaborative effort will result in increased access to hundreds of miles of river for migratory fish, transforming how the basin works for Atlantic salmon, shad, herring, and nine other species. Through operational and equipment changes at the Penobscot dams that remain, the basin will actually produce slightly more energy than it did before.

That success points toward another of the Conservancy’s strands of DNA: science underpins and guides our work. 

We’ve committed ourselves to learning the lessons of the Penobscot and applying them globally to the hydropower challenge.  This is the key lesson of the Penobscot: by moving beyond the scale of a single dam—and toward that of a whole system of dams—new, and potentially bigger, solutions could emerge.

Building on that concept, we’ve developed a strategy called “hydropower by design” that seeks basin-scale solutions across rivers’ social, environmental and economic values. The theory underpinning this work is that good science can identify more balanced outcomes for river basins, and Conservancy scientists are working to develop tools that can find those outcomes. We’re now testing those tools and promoting the potential for more sustainable hydropower development in river basins in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Gabon.

While the Penobscot was something of a remodel, elsewhere in the world, where hydropower is just starting to expand, we want to talk directly to the architects and builders the first time around.

If the only word in your vocabulary is “no,” you probably won’t get invited to take part in many conversations. Through hydropower by design, we have a much broader vocabulary and can get involved in conversations about how and where hydropower will be developed.

Always saying “no” does have one clear advantage: it’s consistent and easy to explain. Being part of a conversation can be complicated and invites suspicion.

This is where our values and our science are key.

Engaging directly in the process of hydropower development means being willing to walk in a world shrouded in gray. To avoid looking gray ourselves, we must shine a bright light on our values: We engage in hydropower the way we do because we believe those strategies have the best chance of keeping the most rivers, wetlands, floodplain forests and estuaries healthy.

Finding strategies that work are urgently needed: these ecosystems are among the most important for people, with values that range from the simple (we love rivers to swim and play) to critical to livelihoods and life (tens of millions of people in Africa and Asia depend on rivers for their daily calories).

But clear statements of values can only get you so far, particularly when combined with complicated collaborations. This is where science comes in. Values are expressed in words, but our science can demonstrate that our values are more than just words.

Using science, we can test our theories, refine our strategies, and quantitatively describe the outcomes we seek. Science can provide credible evidence to support our assertion that being part of the messy conversation can be an effective path to protecting rivers.

Our approaches require collaboration, and these approaches fit our DNA. Our particular DNA—deal driven, science-based—suits us to a certain niche.

I don’t claim that it’s the only way to conserve rivers, but we believe that, in many places, it’s the most effective way. And, importantly, it’s the way that we’re good at. It’s our niche, so let’s make the most of it.

And there are still battles worth fighting. There’s a new list of place names joining the historical roll call: Tiger Leaping Gorge, Sesan and Sambor.

Fighting dams. It’s in environmentalists’ DNA. But what’s the essential trait of DNA? It can evolve.


Join the Discussion

Please note that all comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.


  1. […] there are going to be hundreds of new dams built around the world. To influence those decisions, we need a much broader vocabulary than just the word “no” when it comes to dams. We need to demonstrate where and how to get […]