Watershed Moment

Dams help us. Dams harm us. Now, longtime adversaries are coming together to bridge that uncomfortable divide.

May 2022

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Watershed Moment

Illustration by Michael Crampton

Editor’s Note: The print version of this story mistakenly states that solar and wind energy cannot be stored. Many technologies today can store electricity generated from wind, solar and other sources. We regret the error.

Dave Steindorf knows California’s North Fork Feather River like his backyard. He’s driven along its banks so many times, people wave to him as he goes by. As he passes, he takes mental notes about any day-to-day changes—silt backup in reservoirs that could muck up habitat, or river levels low enough to threaten frog and trout spawning grounds. His personal slogan is “Couch potatoes make poor river advocates,” so he gets out in the river whenever he can, on his kayak or with a fly-fishing rod in his hands. 

“It’s still beautiful up here,” says Steindorf, a negotiator for the conservation nonprofit American Whitewater who works to return water flow to California rivers and to repair ecological damage caused by dams. “It’s just an amazing canyon.”

Absent all the dams, this would be one of the premier whitewater rivers in the state for paddling and rafting, he says. As he drives, he points down through the oak and cottonwood trees to several dams that, one after the other, line the river and control the water flow: the Poe dam, built in 1958; the Rock Creek (1950) and Cresta (1949) dams; and Bucks, the first permanent pair of dams on the North Fork, completed in 1928.

From its headwaters in the Sierra Nevada, the Feather River flows some 3,600 feet downhill, where, in Oroville, it meets the tallest dam in the nation. Its path shows exactly why California geology is ideal for the production of hydropower. It’s physics. The higher the mountains, the faster the water falls. Hydropower dams capture this power and divert it through spinning turbines in nearby powerhouses that activate generators to produce electricity. But all this hydropower comes at a cost.

‘The challenge is understanding whether hydropower is clean energy, and the view among conservationists is mixed. The desire to get more clean, renewable energy, though, is really high.’

The river was once legendary for its salmon runs, but the dams blocked migration upstream, destroying the fish’s spawning grounds, Steindorf says. He still comes up here to fly-fish for trout, but the salmon are all gone. He notes the lack of fish ladders—step-up structures that help migrating fish surmount dams. And yet he also knows these dams are a permanent part of the landscape, bringing electricity into thousands of homes throughout the Sacramento Valley, including his own.

Now, the irony is that the hydroelectricity produced by these dams could help protect the watershed from further damage—the idea being that by limiting our use of fossil fuels, we mitigate climate change and its destruction of ecosystems due to drought and flooding. For an environmentalist who has worked for decades to repair damage to rivers from dams, it can be a hard concept to wrap one’s head around.

In 2018, Steindorf wanted to do just that, so he joined a working group on hydropower and healthy rivers convened through Stanford’s Uncommon Dialogue program. Organized by Dan Reicher, JD ’83, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the gathering brought together two long-feuding groups: representatives of the hydropower industry, which builds and maintains dams, and the environmentalists bent on tearing them down. The goal was to get the sides talking about the pros and cons of hydropower, and about maintaining healthy rivers. Since then, they’ve come to substantial agreement—14 pages of it, in fact—and are using that agreement to effect public policy change, including billions of dollars in federal funding.

“It’s remarkable Dan was able to get these groups together at all,” Steindorf says.

“There’s a lot of baggage.”

The 100-Year Feud

In fact, turmoil over the building of a dam in the early 1900s helped launch the environmental movement. The proposed damming of California’s pristine Hetch Hetchy Valley, twin sister to Yosemite Valley, prompted the fledgling Sierra Club, led by early conservationist John Muir, to wage a seven-year-long lobbying battle to stop it. The Sierra Club lost, and today the Hetch Hetchy Water Project produces hydroelectricity and delivers drinking water to 2.7 million people in the Bay Area. But as the valley disappeared beneath the waters of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, an environmental movement emerged, built upon a mission to take down—and prevent—dams.

For more than a century, the battle over dams has raged. One side believes it’s fighting for the preservation of rivers, Native lands and the natural world: Dams have destroyed fish populations, damaged the ecological health of river basins, and cut off access and destroyed the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples. Notably, the 2014 documentary DamNation juxtaposed a clip of President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the dedication of the Hoover Dam with that of a 30-pound salmon hurtling itself against a dam over and over in its failed attempt to reach the barricaded spawning grounds upriver.

Top image is a black and white photo taken in the 1900s of the Hetch Hetchy Valley. Bottom photo is a current image of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir with water.BEFORE AND AFTER: In the early 1900s, opposition to the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park helped spawn the environmental movement. (Photos, from top: Isaiah West Taber/Sierra Club Bulletin; Afonso Salcedo/Getty Images)

The other side stands proud of its dams as feats of engineering that deliver electricity into American homes and water to parched lands. Hydroelectricity created by the Hetch Hetchy power system, for example, generates nearly 20 percent of San Francisco’s energy. Dams provide jobs and revenue, drinking water, irrigation to agricultural fields and flood control, not to mention reservoirs for recreation. The Oroville Dam has minimized damage from major flooding events in the Feather River watershed nearly every decade since its construction, according to the Water Education Foundation.

Today, there are more than 90,000 dams across the United States, diverting many of the nation’s river waters. Unlike the North Fork Feather River’s dams, most were built primarily for irrigation or flood control and don’t actually produce hydropower. Only 3 percent of all U.S. dams are powered, but they produce a significant 7 percent of the nation’s electricity. Which raises the question: Why, when the need for renewable energy has never been greater, aren’t more dams producing hydropower, a renewable energy available 24/7—at least, as long as rivers continue to flow?

This was exactly the type of question that Reicher, an environmental lawyer, began to ponder more than four years ago while teaching energy policy classes at Stanford. Well versed in the politics and economics of solar and wind power, Reicher, a former U.S. assistant secretary of energy, understood the growing need for renewable energy. He began to wonder why more people weren’t talking about hydropower. An avid kayaker (and member of the first team to paddle the entire 1,888-mile Rio Grande), he also considers himself an environmentalist who has seen firsthand the damage dams can do to rivers. Would it be possible, he wondered, to create additional hydroelectricity without causing even more ecological harm to American rivers?

Reicher soon approached Chris Field, PhD ’81,  a professor of earth system science and of biology who directs the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and asked whether he could tackle that question through the institute’s Uncommon Dialogue program. For more than a decade, the program has provided a neutral platform to bring together divergent groups in search of real-world solutions to environmental problems. “These two groups have been at each other’s throats for decades,” Reicher says. But with severe droughts and floods threatening to damage both rivers and the dams that depend on them, maybe they could find some common ground. Field agreed to the plan. The Woods Institute went on to co-sponsor the group alongside Stanford’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance (where Reicher was the founding director) and the nonprofit Energy Futures Initiative.

 “There was really just a glimmer of hope that this one would work,” Field says. “It would be hard to find two communities more diametrically opposed to each other than environmentalists and the hydropower industry.”

In the Room Where It Happens

Brian Graber, a civil and environmental engineer, has worked for the past 15 years on the removal of 250 dams for the conservation group American Rivers. Many of the dams were obsolete—they no longer performed any of the functions for which they were built—but they continued to create safety hazards and environmental damage. When a dam comes down, he says, almost immediately the river roars back to life. Migrating fish populations return to old spawning grounds after decades away. The natural flowing rivers eventually remove pollutants from previously stagnant waters and re-establish normal sediment patterns, while an entire watershed blossoms with returning plant and animal life. According to the Nature Conservancy, roughly 1,200 dams nationwide have been torn down since the first major dam removal in 1999. That year, the Edwards Dam was excised from Maine’s Kennebec River—the same river where Graber happened to spend summers while he was growing up.

“There’s no faster or more effective way of bringing a river back to life than by taking out a dam,” he says. He’s watched many times as a hydraulic hammer chips away at the concrete wall  until the dam crumbles down. “That first rush of water, it’s incredibly exciting,” he says. “After years of work, it’s like a big sigh. I worked on one project in Wisconsin. We had just taken out a dam and I was standing in the river. A brook trout swam right between my legs where, for many years, there hadn’t been any.”

But the reality is, the long process of planning and lobbying to tear down dams is far too slow to be the only answer to restoring rivers. Climate change is threatening American rivers now, Graber says. He joined Reicher’s Uncommon Dialogue in search of new answers.

In March 2018, a group of about 20 participants invited by Reicher arrived on the Stanford campus for the first meeting of the Uncommon Dialogue on hydropower. Among them were representatives from the environmental advocacy groups American Rivers, the Nature Conservancy, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the World Wildlife Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Tribal representatives were also there, along with hydropower company representatives, investors and lobbyists. The tension was palpable during those first few meetings, Reicher says, and there was a good deal of posturing going on.

First, everyone’s fears needed to be aired out. The hydropower groups saw dam removal efforts as threats to their livelihood. And across the table sat the people who tore them down—individuals who thought that anyone trying to build a dam didn’t care at all about the environment. It took a lot of back and forth to figure out that some of this old baggage could be chucked.

Photo of the Oroville Dam spillway that is damaged from heavy rains.DAMAGED: In 2017, Oroville Dam’s spillways failed due to stress from heavy rains. Some 200,000 people were evacuated, and the cost of repair exceeded $1.1 billion. (Photo: Ron Sanford/Getty Images)

“First off, the U.S. hasn’t built any major new dams in 50 years. That era of big dam building is over,” says Malcolm Woolf, president and CEO of the National Hydropower Association, which represents more than 250 companies in the hydropower industry. Besides, he says, most of the good spots have already been taken. On the flip side, most of the dams these environmental groups were working to tear down were obsolete anyway and weren’t producing hydropower. Many were rundown old mill dams that polluted rivers. “It took getting industry to understand they don’t have to fight every time [others] talked about dam removal,” Woolf says.

Meanwhile, some river advocates didn’t even want to recognize hydropower as clean energy, Graber says. “The challenge is understanding whether hydropower is clean energy, and the view among conservationists is mixed,” he says. “The desire to get more clean, renewable energy, though, is really high.” He refers to hydropower as clean energy, but with a caveat. Dams can, and must, be managed so that they are less damaging to the environment.

The participants were never going to agree on everything. That was apparent from the get-go. But they kept coming back. “Both sides recognized that because of climate change and our collective agendas, we have to find a way to get to yes,” Woolf says. Over 2 1/2 years of meetings and conversations, they began to reach some compromises. What they did agree on was that to produce more hydropower while continuing to restore rivers would take funding. If they could agree on anything, it was that.

Common Ground

The Oroville Dam, which sits majestically on a hillside overlooking the city, is a triumph of engineering. The 770-foot-high embankment retains the contents of Lake Oroville—about 3.5 million acre-feet—and distributes the waters of the Feather River to the entire Sacramento Valley. (One acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons—enough to cover a football field with one foot of water.) The dam was built in 1968 to provide hydropower and to deliver irrigation and drinking water far across the state, including to Southern California and the agricultural fields of the San Joaquin Valley.

Five years ago, amid heavy rains and due to weak infrastructure in the spillways designed to divert floodwaters, Oroville Dam made headlines. Over seven days, media showed the billowing, frothing white waters of the Feather River crashing across the damaged spillways. Fearing the spillways would collapse, resulting in the release of a 30-foot wall of water onto Oroville and the communities below, authorities evacuated nearly 200,000 people from the valley. The rains eventually stopped, the waters receded, and no lives were lost. The cost of repair topped $1.1 billion.

For a moment in time, this got even politicians in Washington, D.C., talking about dams. Infrastructure, apparently, wasn’t all about roads and bridges. A few years later, a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that more than 70 percent of the nation’s dams would be over 50 years old by 2030, and many of those no longer meet safety standards due to the weather fluctuations caused by climate change.

‘Both sides recognized that because of climate change and our collective agendas, we have to find a way to get to yes.’

“Several years prior to that disaster, conservation groups warned that the Oroville Dam’s spillways needed to be upgraded,” Steindorf says, “but nothing was done.” At the Uncommon Dialogue, safety became the No. 1 issue that all sides could get behind. Then the negotiations really took off. Another story about a water restoration project on the Penobscot River in Maine became a model for them to base their work on, Reicher says.

The Penobscot restoration project, completed in 2016, was a collaborative effort to balance fisheries restoration and hydropower production in the state’s largest watershed. The hydropower industry, river advocates and the Penobscot Indian Nation, long in conflict with one another, had negotiated for six years. The upshot was that some useless dams got torn down; new fish ladders got installed; and hydropower production levels were maintained.

“The Penobscot project took out two big dams, changed the operation of others, and opened a thousand miles of habitat for Atlantic salmon while continuing to generate electricity,” says Bob Irvin, who represented American Rivers at the Uncommon Dialogue until his retirement in January. (New president Tom Kiernan, MBA ’89, has grabbed the baton.) “It was our model: How can we do this around the country?”

Members began to pinpoint overlapping interests. The environmentalists agreed to help push for more hydropower to be added to existing dams, but only if it were done as safely as possible for the ecosystem. The hydropower industry agreed to support the removal or rehabilitation of dams that were dangerous or obsolete.

Reicher had become particularly interested in hydropower’s growth potential as a renewable energy because of its electricity storage capacity. Hydropower projects that include pumped storage, such as the Oroville Dam, push water from a lower reservoir up to a higher one when there is excess electricity in the grid. The water gets stored there—picture the reservoir as a battery—until it’s needed. Then it’s released downstream to spin the turbines that activate generators to create electricity, just like conventional hydropower.

Here was an energy source that could feed the power grid when solar and wind were unavailable to keep it constantly running with zero-carbon emissions. “That was an eye opener to me,” Reicher says. Thus continued the give-and-take behind the Uncommon Dialogue’s eventual compromise: I’ll support more pumped storage if you get behind funding for new fish ladders.

“Trying to find commonality and agreement was hard,” says Mary Pavel, a lawyer representing the Skokomish Tribe of Washington state, whose culture and livelihood were trammeled by the construction of the Cushman Dam on the Skokomish River in 1930. She’s been a member of the Uncommon Dialogue for four years.

“I often have to take my advocate hat off and really try to listen,” she says. “A dam nearly destroyed my reservation, and I’ve got to get it back. But if we push for our interests alone, then nothing gets done. That is really the point of the Uncommon Dialogue. Are we better off with nothing? Most people would say no. There has to be a place for dialogue.”

Giving a Dam

In October 2020, the Uncommon Dialogue members had finally agreed on enough to fill a 14-page document. When they published their agreement, the New York Times considered it groundbreaking enough to run a story headlined “Environmentalists and Dam Operators, at War for Years, Start Making Peace.”

 Their lodestar is what they call the “three R’s”:

 • Rehabilitating: to upgrade all U.S. dams to current technological standards, making them safe and bolstering their resilience to the effects of climate change

 • Retrofitting: to add hydropower to more dams and develop additional pumped storage capacity at existing powered dams while enhancing dam and reservoir operations for fish passage

 • Removing: to tear down unsafe dams that can’t be cost-effectively repaired or those causing harmful impacts to the environment that can’t be adequately mitigated

Once they had developed the agreement, the members began anew, this time collaborating to advocate for increased funding for their plan through lobbying and the legislative process. The group began with an initial $63 billion proposal delivered to the Biden administration and Congress on April 23, 2021, that “if fully enacted,” it says, “would support or create approximately 500,000 good-paying jobs, restore over 20,000 miles of rivers, enhancing their climate resilience, and secure more than 80 gigawatts of existing renewable hydropower and 23 gigawatts of electricity storage capacity.” (Those numbers represent the nation’s total hydropower capacity.)

That proposal remains a work-in-progress, one that the group continues to rely on and revise to press for federal support. After negotiations on the original proposal with Rep. Annie Kuster of New Hampshire and others, it was revised into the Twenty-First Century Dams Act and introduced to the House in July 2021. The bill, if passed, would allot $21.1 billion in federal funds to “enhance the safety, grid resilience benefits and power generating capacity of America’s dams and provide historic funding to remove dams that are no longer necessary,” according to a press release from the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, ’55, the Democrat who introduced the bill in the Senate.

Around the same time, the Uncommon Dialogue on hydropower also delivered a funding proposal to Congress in time to influence negotiations on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. This time, the team worked with politicians including Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio and longtime kayaking buddy of Reicher’s from their Dartmouth College years. (The two paddled together after law school on the Yangtze River in China before the building of the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, Three Gorges.) 

‘Are we better off with nothing? Most people would say no. There has to be a place for dialogue.’

When President Biden signed the infrastructure bill into law on November 15, 2021, it included $2.4 billion for dams, including roughly $800 million for dam removal, $800 million for dam safety and $800 million for dam retrofitting. “This is a rare example of people getting out of their bubbles and working together to solve problems,” says the Hydropower Association’s Woolf. “It hasn’t been easy, but it rang the cash register faster than anyone would have expected.”

Portman says the Uncommon Dialogue proposal played a key role in influencing the allotment of funds. “The $2.4 billion is a lot of money for dams that generally go ignored,” he says. “My hope is we can continue to work with Uncommon Dialogue in the future.”

“That was a huge success,” says Graber of American Rivers. “We see it as a down payment for what’s really needed.”

And so the work continues. Members meet over Zoom multiple times a week, working hard to get more funding for the three R’s. One of their many projects includes pushing for three-R provisions in the proposed Water Resources Development Act of 2022. Another is advocating for tax credits for those who invest in the three R’s. “All of the three R’s are expensive,” Graber notes. “Tax credits could help out.” And this spring, the group sent a new agreement to Capitol Hill recommending changes to federal dam licensing processes.

Members admit that over the years, they’ve even become friends with former adversaries. They don’t always agree, of course, but the previous animosity has been replaced by a willingness to listen. “What I learned from my conservation work over the years is that each side has the ability to block the other side from getting anything they want done,” says Irvin, the former American Rivers president. “It takes cooperation and dialogue.” The success of the project has inspired a new Uncommon Dialogue, one that began in February on controversies over where to build future large solar projects, Reicher says. 

Steindorf continues to work full time on getting utility companies to increase water flow along the Feather River and beyond, while squeezing in several Uncommon Dialogue meetings a week during his spare hours. Now, thanks to the work of the group, there may be money available from the infrastructure bill to install fish ladders on the North Fork Feather River, he says, and perhaps even to modernize old turbines built 70 years ago with 100-year-old technology. It will be a race to keep up with climate change. Last summer, Oroville Lake’s record low level prevented hydropower generation for the first time since the dam opened in 1968. 

He shakes his head at the warm February day.

“California and the West are in the midst of the worst drought in 1,200 years,” he says, scanning the horizon for any sign of snow dusting the Sierra Nevada. Beneath him flowed the river dependent on that snowmelt, at the mercy of the many it sustains. 

Tracie White is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at traciew@stanford.edu.

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