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Deep in green (manure): Dams divert more than water

Dear Steve,

I need your opinion as a stream and watershed restorer if you have some time:

Recent green-energy emphasis in energy production is producing a movement toward developing what’s called low-impact hydroelectric projects or facilities. Mostly, these generation plants work in much the same way as the Hoover Dam, only on smaller scale. The principles they work on are those of the old grain mill—falling or flowing water turning a turbine and shaft attached to a generator.

It all seems very local, homegrown, and green: A small plant operates quietly off to the side of a river or stream. In some cases, penstocks run from higher elevations upstream to the plant’s generating reservoir and turbines. In most cases, however, the operators or public entities that benefit from generating plants build diversion dams to create reliable sources of water at elevations suitable to plant operation. A nearby municipality receives cheap power without unsightly transmission lines, that, themselves are mired in regulations, rules, and corporate and government bureaucracies. The entrepreneurs or capital interests investing in such low-impact projects market them as absent or almost absent serious environmental issues. Enough of these plants increases hydroelectric generation, avoids the ecological changes and problems of a Hoover or Bonneville dam, and allows watersheds and biosystems to function in relative peace. The idea should, they think, appeal to just about anyone by avoiding sticky and emotional debates surrounding climate change, carbon emissions, and air quality issues.

The whole story, I think, shows us something different. First, like many green initiatives in private industry, the intention is not to reduce consumption but to increase it by creating another reason to consume. As a marketing tool, “green” has produced more things to buy. Since we lack any way of knowing for sure the actual greenness—or even definitions of green—of anything on the shelf, green labeling has become all the rage. Producers of everything from passenger cars and trucks to kids plastic cars and trucks, from laundry detergent to blenders and hand soap tout their products as green. But the consumer has no guarantee that green marketers have changed any part of their production methods or formulas to be more environmentally friendly.

Second, as we can see from marketing, “green” and “environmentally friendly” are mere frames. Political discourse and marketing move these frames around the spatial dynamics of human geography to emphasize certain things. For instance, we almost never hear politicians say anything decent about organized labor but often go to that well for support and money. It’s bad in one sense and good in another. The dynamics of power, access, wealth, friends, etc., do not change. Political campaigns—and all politicians are marketers as much as they are marketed—merely move frames around the political/capital/social room to present pictures appropriate to each audience they address—lobbyists, unions, corporations, business associations, etc. Nothing in the background changes, only the pictures in the frames. The fundamental and underlying range of defects and perfections for this time and the future continue unabated.

In other words, green in the nonprofit/environmental discourse means something quite different and often opposite of green in capital/power/political discourse. But to the common consumer with an array of interests and responsibilities, the range of “greens” look and sound alike. Environmentalist and environmental thinkers create the green concern and industry moves to ease that concern, make green easy, convenient, and fun. But all industry rarely does green for greenness’ sake but for the profit in green. The rationale, of course, is that any business has to make money.

Low-impact hydroelectric projects serve the same master. Consumption continues and may be, in fact, increased with lower overhead costs to business and more profits for shareholders due to the cheapness of electricity from these projects. We have no incentive to conserve or change our ways of living. In fact, this green source of electricity gives us all the more reason to feel comfortable consuming all we like, and more.

Certainly, hydropower has less impact on air, is quiet, and can provide locally produced power from small and medium sized businesses (at least until their profitability becomes attractive to large corporate interests). Diversion dams, canals, and penstocks, however, change rivers and streams, particularly those few that business/government interests have yet tapped as power, irrigation, or flood-control assets because they were either too small, geologically unstable, or topographically difficult.

In theory, a small plant could store and use water from intermittent sources, operate for part of the year, and still recover costs through sale of electricity on the grid. This makes possible the installation of plants in semi-arid watersheds in the upper-Plains and the West. A concrete containment pond serves as the reservoir for a plant on tricky geology. By changing the width and height of diversion dams, the become appropriate for narrowest of mountain cataracts and widest and flattest of plains.

Small watersheds, by scale alone, ecologically fragile. Placement of a small diversion dams could change biosystems drastically, I would think. “Diversion dam,” itself, is a pliant term. Some diversion dams are mere berms of rock dumped across rivers. Some are large structures functioning much like a regular reservoir dam, except that water flows (basically) continuously over, beside, or through the dam, generating electricity or diverting river and stream water into irrigation canals.

Specific examples of diversion dams I have seen, walked, and canoed over convince me that these new grand new ideas behind hydro and green-power generation are not what the promoters say. The Water One water utility diversion of the Kansas River just a few miles up from the Missouri allows fish passage at only high water events, which, of course, flush fish downstream. Missouri River aquatic life have no access to upstream reaches of the Kansas. In low water, the irrigation diversion dam on the lower Yellowstone just upstream from the Missouri limits spoonbill, river and pallid sturgeon, and other large fish access upstream. In addition, the Mississippi’s locks-and-dams function as diversion dams, both literally in that water flows over rock coffer dams aside the locks and flows through the locks as well.

In these few examples, such diversion dams slow rivers, which deposit silt and become environments for slower, warmer-river aquatic plant and animal life. This pooling, of course, also changes the wetland structures of floodplains, and the flora and fauna of existing nonarable or unfarmed floodplains themselves. These, I argue, also impact upland areas as the animals and plants, which evolved for ecological niches that have fuzzy and shifting boundaries, move freely between upland and floodplain until the environments in either or both change so significantly as to become inhospitable to or unable to sustain those animals and plants.

I have to look into all this, but it seems to me right off that the academic literature on environmental impacts of diversions is thin. Can you suggest some places I might look, including those journals, etc., that aren‘t specifically scientific? I have access to incredible databases at UMKC, so a pointer will lead me into labyrinths of very cool and interesting stuff.

As a final thought: I prefer to think otherwise, but from the intractability of systems of capital and social power distribution—trade, finance, politics, etc., perhaps we are destined to pee-up our earthly biome. Dan Flores, an environmental historian, argues with sociobiologists evolutionary biologists that we are hardwired to succeed, regardless of the cost to surrounding environment. We have, however, been so successful that the changes we have wrought outpace our ability to evolve to them. Yet, we have a human nature evolution has given us, and we will continue to behave as we have in the past until the nest is no longer livable in the ways we like and find physical and psychological comfort in.

I argue, that if this is the case, we will to interpret what was once a need to survive not with survival, but with buffers against want—wealth, plenty, status, and control of others and the environment.


P.S. I wanted to send you this latest review of Seldom Seen. It’s a scholarly review that appeared in Western American Literature, a big-deal journal in the fields of English and American Studies, as well as Western History and Environmental History. It’s really cool and I almost cried when I read it.

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