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After 'DamNation' screening, expert panel highlights impacts of dams across the globe

“DamNation” filmmaker Matt Stoecker (left) chats with California State Park Senior Ecologist Suzanne Good (right) as CSP biologist Jamie King looks on May 9 at Malibu City Hall. Photos by Suzanne Guldimann/22nd Century Media
(Left to right) event moderator Randy Olsen is pictured with “DamNation” Executive Director Yvon Chouinard and filmmaker Matt Stoecker.
Suzanne Guldimann, Freelance Reporter
7:38 am PDT May 16, 2017

Malibu residents had the opportunity to hear Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and documentary filmmaker Matt Stoecker talk about their 2014 film “DamNation” at a May 9 screening that was part of the Malibu Library Speakers Series.

Ecologist Randy Olsen, also an activist and filmmaker, moderated the event. He called “DamNation” “one of the best environmental films ever made.”

The documentary on the environmental movement to remove dams and free the rivers they block makes the case that the era of dams has ended. The filmmakers embrace the perspective that the dams that were a key element of the mid-century doctrine of human dominance over the environment were a colossal mistake. 

They point out that the vast majority of 20th century dams, even those billed as engineering marvels, have outlived their engineered “life” and become not only obsolete but a major environmental and safety liability.

It’s a costly dilemma. According to the filmmakers, there are more than 75,000 dams of at least 5 feet in height throughout the United States. 

Those dams, built to generate power or to provide water for irrigation, development, flood control and even recreation, have altered the rivers, changing flow rates, water speed, and temperature. Those changes have caused a major negative impact on many species, including the nearly extinct Southern steelhead trout in California.

Woven through the film is a chronology of the events leading to the removal of two dams on the Elwha River in the Olympic Mountains of Washington State. The Elwha Dam, removed in 2011, was the largest dam removal in the U.S. It was followed by the removal of the Glines Canyon Dam in 2014. Today, the Elwha once again runs freely from the mountains to the sea.

Following the screening, the audience had an opportunity to engage with the filmmakers.

Chouinard, an outspoken advocate for the environment who has built his multibillion-dollar outdoor clothing company on a model of ecological responsibility, had harsh words for President Donald Trump’s desire to build more dams. Chouinard called the entire concept of above ground reservoirs obsolete and inefficient. He pointed to wind and solar as more efficient, less environmentally damaging sources of power. 

“They are seriously considering taking out four dams in the Snake River,” Chouinard said. 

He added that there is a serious discussion about taking down the infamous Glen Canyon Dam in Utah. The dam, one of the largest built in the U.S., flooded miles of pristine desert canyons to create Lake Powell and ignited an environmental movement in the 1950s.

Stoecker added that evaporation makes even the biggest desert reservoirs inefficient. 

“What we need to do is refill the water table,” he said.

The filmmakers also discussed Rindge Dam, the nearly 90-year-old structure located three miles up Malibu Canyon, just outside the city of Malibu.

Chouinard indicated that he does not have much faith in the government to move forward with dam removal on its own, but believes that individuals have the power to get things done. 

The 100-foot-tall concrete dam in Malibu Creek was built in 1924 by the Rindge family who owned the Malibu Rancho. It was intended to create a 600-acre-foot reservoir to provide water for the Rindge Ranch and for development in Malibu, but it began to silt up almost as soon as it was completed in 1926, and was obsolete by 1966, when it was decommissioned. Today, instead of water, it impounds an estimated 780,000 cubic yards of sediment, and for more than 20 years there have been calls for its removal.

Advocates for the endangered Southern steelhead trout hope the Rindge Dam removal will reopen several more miles of Malibu Creek to the fish. 

State Parks, which currently owns the dam, has been working with the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a removal plan and complete the necessary environmental review for the removal process, which includes excavating the sediment as well as demolishing the concrete dam.

“You may want to rethink the Army Corps,” Stoecker said, adding that the Corps “give no respect to nature.”

Chouinard went one step further, calling the Corps’ plans for the Rindge Dam removal “nuts.” 

“You don’t hire a beaver to remove a dam,” he said. “It’s so much better to have a local plan.”

Stoecker also suggested that the elaborate concern for keeping silt out of the creek may not be necessary. 

“[Steelhead] have adapted to fire-prone chaparral,” he said. “The silt will make the creek healthier down the road.”

Chouinard said the silt could make things better for surfers as well as fish by restoring Surfrider Beach. 

“You’ll have a better surf break,” he said.

Stoecker agreed. 

“There are 100 new acres [of sand] at the mouth of the Elwha. It’s gone from a small point break of cobbles to a big sand break with a left break,” he said. 

More information on “DamNation” can be found at damnationfilm.com. To sign up for future Malibu Library Speaker Series events, visit www.malibucity.org/libraryspeakers.