Dam good river movie

By on June 10, 2014

In a scene from DamNation, a pod of wild pink salmon swim up the pristine and free flowing Susitna River just below the site of a proposed mega dam being pushed by the State of Alaska. Photo: Matt Stoecker.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The story of the Teton River Dam – which failed upon completion in 1976, releasing the contents of its reservoir, killing 11 people and causing millions of dollars in damage  – may be enough to discourage some from revisiting the idea. But with proposals on the table for a second Teton River Dam in the same location, as well as dams in other robust ecosystems throughout the country, the film DamNation unleashes a flurry of timely dialogue.

Weaved into America’s landscape for the past hundred years, dams have come to symbolize engineering prowess but more recently, a wilting American philosophy.

“It’s a generational issue. There is a younger generation that is truly passionate about restoring rivers and an older generation that grew up when there was a lot of national pride about conquering rivers,” explained Travis Rummel, co-director of DamNation.

While dams promise societal benefits such as renewable energy, irrigation, water storage and flood control, the environmental impacts can be calamitous. Today there are more than 80,000 dams greater than six feet in the United States, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

A dizzying list of environmental repercussions, gathered by the nonprofit American Rivers, includes reduced river levels; the prevented flow of plants and nutrients; impeded migration of fish and other wildlife, and blocked recreational use; slower river flows that disorient fish and affect migration; a change in water temperature; water flow fluctuation between no water and powerful surges, which erode vegetation; dam turbines hurting or killing fish; dam reservoirs increasing predator risk and the list goes on.

While environmental problems associated with dams are vast, Rummel says there is a growing movement, captured in the film, that offers a viable solution.

“People think about the environment as a huge issue that they can’t do anything about,” Rummel said. “But dam removal does make a difference. These areas where dams are removed are very resilient and the fish come back quickly, even after 100 years of displacement.”

Chronicling the river renegades involved with the effort to remove dams is just one way Rummel and co-director Ben Knight, of Felt Soul Media, manage to humanize DamNation. There are powerful segments featuring a Nez Perce elder, a river keeper who has manned his post 12 hours a day for the last 13 years and one of the last people, now 94, to experience Glen Canyon before a dam was constructed there.

The people behind the cameras also share intimate relationships with rivers. Rummel worked as a fly-fishing and rafting guide in Telluride, Colo., and producer/ photographer Matt Stoecker’s childhood memories provided inspiration for the movie: “As a teenager, I watched in amazement as steelhead trout the size of my arm jumped five feet out of the water, soared head first into Stanford University’s Searsville Dam, then bounced off the concrete in defeat,” Stoecker said. “For over a century this unneeded dam has blocked these magnificent sea-run fish from returning home to spawn in the creek I grew up beside. I recognized that first day the destructive power of a single dam over an entire watershed. Since that day, two decades ago, I’ve dedicated my life to restoring free-flowing rivers.”

Rounding out the group of activist filmmakers is Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard as executive producer.

Film screening of DamNation, 7 and 9:30 p.m., on Friday at Center for the Arts. Filmmakers, including Yvon Chouinard, will be in attendance for a Q&A session after the film. $17 tickets benefit area nonprofits.

About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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