Within the fly fishing world, it’s standard knowledge that damming rivers harms and degrades ecosystems, migratory fish, and communities of people. Steven Hawley’s Cracked takes a deep dive into the history of dam building in the United States and globally, shedding light to many of the not so common knowledge sides of dams. From the Glen Canyon Dam and reservoir evaporation to sustained efforts to dam pristine Chilean rivers to the success of dam removals on the Elwha to poor economics of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration, Cracked underscores the sustained and well-connected dam construction efforts globally and identifies the blueprint for successfully reconnecting river systems. If you care about rivers and understand the importance of wild, free-flowing waters, this is a book you need to read.

Cracked author, Steven Hawley

Published by Patagonia, Cracked reads with a tone of keeping wild places wild and restoring previously wild places to give future generations the opportunity to experience all that this remarkable planet has to offer, but also an almost fear-inducing reflection of past mistakes. The threat of climate change, however, has always been a perplexing factor for dams and hydropower, specifically. The traditional thinking was that dams are a clean, carbon-free source of electricity and energy, that are good for the planet—well at least compared to coal, oil, and gas power. However, Cracked exposes a different school of thought that hydropower is not as “green” as once though and, in many cases, produce substantial amounts of emissions harmful to the planet.

The bathtub ring of light minerals at Reservoir Mead shows the high-water mark of the reservoir, which has since shrunk to its lowest point since it was first filled in the 1930s. Southern Paiute ancestral lands, Arizona.

For example, methane emissions, a potent and harmful greenhouse gas, are a huge, and often under-estimated, output of dam construction. “A new model improved the accuracy of methane measurements in reservoirs. Emissions were about 29 percent higher than previously predicted. All told, the world’s reservoirs are annually producing 1.07 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalents as methane. This is as much greenhouse gas as is emitted annually by Germany, the world’s sixth-largest contributor to climate change.”

Built during the Depression at fire-sale prices, the construction of Hoover Dam launched what would become the largest construction firms in the United States. Southern Paiute ancestral lands, Nevada. PHOTO CREDIT: © Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress.

Hawley goes into the dark history of the Bureau of Reclamation’s pursuit of dams at the expense of indigenous tribes and entire towns. Advertised as ushering in modern society, BoR promoted dams as the necessary tool for converting unusable lands into booming places of commerce and prosperity. But in reality BoR’s actions throughout the 20th century padded very few, yet well-connected, pockets, displaced entire communities, and destroyed wild and immensely productive rivers.

The Klamath River’s Iron Gate Dam and Reservoir—an emitter of the potent greenhouse gas methane. Note the bright green hue of the water, the sign of a dangerous algal bloom. Klamath River Shasta Indian Nation ancestral lands, California. PHOTO CREDIT: © EcoFlight

“When, in 1902, the Bureau of Reclamation was invented, a new cabal of powers turned their collective attention to dams. Making the desert bloom, it was uncritically assumed, was a giant leap for humankind, a project only a technologically advanced, eternally optimistic, fabulously wealthy, and powerful nation such as the United States could undertake. But it was shortsighted to assume that the total control of water–across far-flung geography–was a bold leap for civilization.”

When discussing rivers in the Pacific Northwest, Cracked takes note from indigenous communities to describe the holistic impacts dams have generated. Not only have the Snake River dams decimated wild salmon and steelhead runs, but their human impacts serve another devastating example of dam-building’s disturbing past. Carrie Chapman Nightwalker Schuster is a Palouse tribal leader, who’s childhood marred by her home and ancestral lands being inundated with the Snake River Dams’ construction.

Concrete isn’t forever: the Elwha was freed of its dams in 2014. Lower Elwha Klallam ancestral lands, Washington. PHOTO CREDIT: © John Gussman

Prior to the construction and under an agreement formed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, archeologists from Washington Universities arrived to sacred tribal lands. “One day we saw the archeologists,” recounted Schuster. “At this point my mother’s eyes were going bad, and she couldn’t quite make out what was being dug out of the earth. So, I was her eyes. ‘They’re taking a canoe!’ I told her. It was then that we knew that they were stealing my mother’s grandfather, my great-grandfather.”

Gary Woodcock paddles through the locks of Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in a Salish dugout canoe. Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation ancestral lands, Washington. PHOTO CREDIT: © Ben Herndon

Today, there is real movement to remove the Lower Four Snake River Dams. Congressman Mike Simpson, a conservative Republican from Idaho, developed a plan to remove the dams and replace the dams’ services. Some of the region’s Democrats, too, developed a plan to offset the benefits and recover the River. Yet, Hawley determines both plans miss the target, because according to former 30-year veteran of the Corps of Engineers, Jim Waddell, explained that not only are the dams “fish-killers, they are money-losers.” Waddell concludes a discussion with Hawley by saying, “But the realization that I have–we all have–an environmental ethic, is because we are a part of nature, not separate from it. That means, among many other things, that economy and ecology are really two sides of the same coin. We shouldn’t consider the well-being of one without equally considering the other.”

Kalivac dam site on the Vjosa River in Albania. The dam project had an inadequate environmental report, protestors rallied against it, and the project was abandoned in 2021. PHOTO CREDIT: © Andrew Burr

Cracked points to many other examples of dam tragedies, including along Chile’s Patagonia rivers and in comparatively undeveloped parts of Europe, where sustained and powerful dam proponents are trying to dam the remarkable, glacial rivers of these remote corners of the world. These example also show the power of grassroots efforts to fight dam construction and protect wild, free-flowing rivers. As such, one of Cracked’s main takeaway points is a blueprint for how to effectively advocate and organize against pro-dam efforts.

Hawley, lays out the “blueprint” to form a movement, the expertise needed to refute the claims of dam developers or government entities alike, and how to create the grassroots, community level operation to garner the political will and influence to fight for rivers and/or restore them. This “educational” chapter is important, for as David Browner, a formative environmentalist and the Sierra Club’s first Executive Director, observed, “all environmental victories are temporary, and all defeats permanent.”

For any angler who appreciates wild, free-flowing, healthy rivers as much as a well-fed trout or the powerful experience of seeing spawning salmon thousands of miles from the ocean, Cracked is a great read. It provides context for the global shortsightedness of attempting to harness the power of rivers and turn the desert green and describes the will of many to fight for these wild, life-giving bodies of water. Finally, Cracked inspires what it takes to turn the tide against dams, recover and restore the world’s rivers and embodies Patagonia’s ethic of protecting the one planet we’ve got. So, be sure to get a copy of Patagonia’s Cracked and learn for yourself!

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