Nearly one-third of dams in the national inventory list “recreation” as their raison d’être, a rather vague description.I inquired about this with the Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the inventory, and their reply merely offered a cursory explanation of “purpose” codes in the database.The novel’s title entered the popular lexicon as a term for destructive activism: “monkeywrenching.” Abbey once described his enemies as “desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators.” Now, 40 years later, Abbey might be surprised to learn that it’s men and women crunching numbers at desks who actually incite the dynamiting of dams.The decision to remove a dam is surprisingly simple. “The bottom line is usually the bottom line,” says Jim O’Connor, a research geologist at USGS.Salmon hatch in freshwater rivers, swim out to sea, and then return to their birthplace to reproduce, a circle-of-life story that has captured people’s imaginations for generations.
In the reservoir behind the dam, lake creatures and plants start to replace the former riverine occupants.As the ecological and cultural toll dams take became clearer, our relationship with them started to show its cracks. At the turn of the century, John Muir and a small band of hirsute outdoorsmen opposed construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite. By the 1960s, pricy full-page ads in the New York Times opposed the Echo Park Dam on a tributary of the Colorado. Echo Park Dam was never built—but downstream, Glen Canyon Dam went up instead, inspiring new levels of resentment and vitriol among dam opponents.In a 1975 novel by cantankerous conservationist Edward Abbey, environmental activists blow up Glen Canyon Dam.Gordon Grant didn’t really get excited about the dam he blew up until the night a few weeks later when the rain came.It was October of 2007, and the concrete carnage of the former Marmot Dam had been cleared.