Give a Dam, Take a Dam

A parable for a polarized time.

May 2022

Reading time min

Illustration of a waterway with boaters on it and a dam with fish climbing a fish ladder

Illustration: Michael Crampton

When we assigned our new senior writer, Tracie White, her first cover story for the magazine, we had no idea her dad, civil engineer Richard White, had helped build the Akosombo Dam in Ghana. Tracie, then a toddler, grew up knowing that the dam had brought electricity to many, but less aware of the destruction and displacement it left in its wake. 

Meanwhile, senior editor Jill Patton, ’03, MA ’04, is married to Ben, ’03, who works in the renewable energy field. His mom, Leah Hair, ’68, has devoted herself to protecting salmon in the Pacific Northwest. 

Which means Tracie and Jill are an ideal team to explore what happens when two oppositional forces—those who build and maintain dams and those who want to remove them to restore eco-
systems—come together. 

The paradox: Dams have destroyed fish populations and Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods, but they can also generate hydropower, providing some 7 percent of the United States’ electricity morning, noon and night. The brave (or possibly foolhardy) hero: Dan Reicher, JD ’83, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, who wondered whether we could boost the nation’s hydropower output. The setting: the Uncommon Dialogue on hydropower, a program of the Woods Institute that brought together conservationists, industry execs and tribal representatives to see what they could agree on. 

Groups that have battled one another for decades have begun to find and agree on common interests.

Which could sound like a whole lot of nattering on about infrastructure. But when I read Tracie’s story, it seems instead like a parable for a polarized time. Groups that have battled one another for decades have begun to find and agree on common interests. All, for example, are concerned about climate change, because extreme weather events both dry up rivers and threaten the integrity of dams. Also, the groups learned to stop talking past one another. It turns out only 3 percent of the nation’s dams are used for hydropower, and environmentalists are often looking to tear down old mill dams that aren’t suitable for producing electricity anyway. There are plenty of win-wins to find.

So if you were wondering why you should give a dam, think of the story not as one about concrete or spillways or even fish ladders. Think of it as what can happen when longtime adversaries set aside old assumptions and start listening. For starters, they’ve been able to get senators on both sides of the aisle to collaborate on dam rehabilitation, retrofitting and removal. And they see the initial $2.4 billion allocated in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill as simply a down payment. They have a vision for making dams safer and more hospitable to fish passage, adding hydropower where feasible, and tearing down dams that can’t be made safe or environmentally sound. They intend to keep working together to realize it.

Now, that’s uncommon.

Kathy Zonana, ’93, JD ’96, is the editor of Stanford. Email her at

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