This powerful film odyssey across America explores the sea change in our national attitude from pride in big dams as engineering wonders to the growing awareness that our own future is bound to the life and health of our rivers. Dam removal has moved beyond the fictional Monkey Wrench Gang to go mainstream. Where obsolete dams come down, rivers bound back to life, giving salmon and other wild fish the right of return to primeval spawning grounds, after decades without access. DamNation’s majestic cinematography and unexpected discoveries move through rivers and landscapes altered by dams, but also through a metamorphosis in values, from conquest of the natural world to knowing ourselves as part of nature.
DamNation opens big, on a birth, with the stirring words of Franklin D. Roosevelt at the dedication of Hoover Dam, and on a death, as the engineer at Elwha Dam powers down the turbine on its last day. DamNation stints neither the history nor the science of dams, and above all conveys experiences known so far to only a few, including the awe of watching a 30-pound salmon hurtling 20 feet into the air in a vain attempt to reach the spawning grounds that lie barricaded upriver. We witness the seismic power of a dam breaking apart and, once the river breaks free, the elation in watching wild salmon – after a century of denied access – swimming their way home.
DamNation shows how far things have moved and how quickly, from the assumption 50 years ago that dams were always a power for good, to the first successful attempt to remove a marginal dam 20 years ago on the Kennebec River. The film highlights other dam removal stories, including the Elwha and White Salmon Rivers in Washington, the Rogue River in Oregon, and the Penobscot River in Maine.
Diverse interests across the country are coming together to remove obsolete dams and find more cost-effective options to meet power, shipping, irrigation and other needs, while helping to restore rivers, preserve tribal customs, recover fish stocks, revitalize waterfronts, improve recreational opportunities and render watersheds more resilient to climate change.
Dam owners, impacted communities, and politicians are now reevaluating the usefulness of certain dams and often advocating for decommissioning and removal. Some call it a movement, others call it a generational shift in values.DamNation documents both – and the undeniable momentum behind river restoration that has begun to take hold in our country.