Half our country is suffering from one of the worst droughts and most intense forest fire seasons on record. Climate change has Western states parched and burning, yet a key contributor to this crisis is not getting the attention it deserves: dams and reservoirs.
To make matters worse, a coalition of hydropower and dam interests is pushing Congress and the Biden administration to funnel billions of dollars into propping up dams and selling the lie that dams provide a clean solution to America’s energy needs. But the truth is that including this proposal would make a mockery of the growing science on destructive dams and infrastructure plans meant to fight climate change. Investing in dams, instead of cleaner and less harmful energy and water solutions, perpetuates the crisis.
There’s nothing “green” about hydropower or water storage dams, and we’ve got the dirt to prove it.
I know it can be hard to see what’s so “dirty” and dangerous about storing water behind a dam — it’s just water, after all. But take a look at the growing body of scientific research that exposes how dams are part of the climate problem.
First, dams contribute to climate change. Dams emit greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, as the trees, grasses, and trapped nutrients submerged under the reservoir break down. In other words, this supposedly “green” energy, intended to reduce emissions, can actually have the opposite effect.
For example, emissions from the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River are estimated to be equal to that of coal power plants producing the same amount of electricity. On top of that, dams prevent natural processes of carbon sequestration by destroying millions of acres of wetlands, grasslands and forests. President Biden pledged to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50% below 2005 levels by 2030, because these emissions lead to global warming by trapping heat in our atmosphere. But data strongly indicates that many dams and their methane-burping reservoirs and turbines work against that goal.
Second, as we’re witnessing in the drought-stricken West, dams are an unreliable and unsustainable water supply solution. Though dams are popularly thought to provide insurance against drought, California cities and farmers that rely on the Central Valley Project (a network of dams, reservoirs, and hydroelectric plants) recently saw their water supply slashed down to 25% due to low water, and farmers along the Rio Grande in New Mexico face a second straight year of having their water supply cut off early.
On top of that, increasing fires, floods, and erosion are filling reservoirs up with sediment, further reducing their water storage capacity. Increasing air and water temperatures are evaporating more reservoir water. A United Nations study found that reservoirs evaporate more water than is used by them. Investing in groundwater recharge, aquifer storage, and better management offers a less expensive and more efficient solution. Stanford researchers have found that the storage capacity of underground aquifers in California dwarfs the storage capacity of all reservoirs in the state combined and that groundwater storage costs much less than dam storage.
Third, dams are bad for habitats, homes and ecosystems. The long history of dams also is a history of displacement of between 40-80 million people, mostly from low-income and Indigenous communities, as well as immeasurable wildlife globally as forests are cut down, rivers are diverted, and wild areas are flooded to create new dams and hydropower projects. Meanwhile, stagnant dam reservoirs trap heat and create toxic algae blooms that lead to serious public health concerns, water scarcity, and contamination for local populations.
Finally, dams are both cost and energy inefficient compared to real forms of renewable energy such as wind and solar. An estimated 75-90% of America’s dams no longer function. These deadbeat dams are outdated money pits, and more maintenance or modification band-aids aren’t the answer. We now have better energy and water solutions.
For all these reasons, it would be a waste of money and a moral travesty to include these outdated and disastrous dam projects in a climate or infrastructure agenda. Dams aren’t a “clean” or “green” energy or water storage option when they are devastating ecosystems, communities, and our environment.
It’s simple: instead of building up dams, we should be tearing them down. Patagonia is in business to save our home planet, so we can’t stand by as the hydropower and dam industry tries to line its pockets by greenwashing the truth about dams. That’s why we’re calling on the Biden administration to take three crucial steps:
Include significant funding for dam removal — and not rehabilitation or retrofitting — in the American Jobs Plan.
Next, direct the Environmental Protection Agency to require that all dam facilities study, evaluate, and report data on their net carbon footprint.
Finally, remove electricity generated from hydropower dams from all U.S. renewable-energy standards and strengthen Federal Trade Commission guidance around the rampant false environmental and climate claims related to dam facilities and hydropower.
Biden’s infrastructure and jobs legislation can be a historic step forward for humanity and the protection of our planet. But government resources are best spent on smart infrastructure projects that advance climate progress and make our water systems more resilient in the face of environmental crises like droughts, not foolishly propping up dirty dams.
Yvon Chouinard, of Ventura, Calif., is founder of Patagonia Inc.