America’s water whiplash

This was originally published on the NYU Press Blog From the Square.

Jerry Brown must sometimes wonder why he isn’t called the water governor. In the 1970s he presided over a severe drought in California. Forty years later, he was governor again. The water? Gone once more. Both droughts eventually subsided—although subsided doesn’t capture the events of this past spring when intense rains pushed America’s tallest dam into code red.

The Oroville Dam towers 770 feet (225 meters) above where the water in its reservoir would like to rest. Even this colossal structure, however, proved no match for the new normal in which climate change can deliver water with a fire hose. As rain fell and water rose, the dam’s spillway was opened to relieve the reservoir. Soon, however, the scouring water eroded a large sinkhole in the concrete waterslide. As the sinkhole began to erode uphill towards the reservoir it forced a choice: close the spillway and let the waters keep rising or keep it open and hope erosion stops short of undermining the dam itself.

The spillway was shut, and engineers, politicians, and the 200,000 people evacuated downstream watched and listened nervously as the water bulged against earthen and concrete bulwarks. As the water breached the reservoir’s capacity the first drops began to trickle over the erstwhile engineering marvel. Then the torrent came. Water mixed with rocks and debris to overwhelm downstream waterways and wash away critical aquatic habitat. The only relief came by chance when the rains stopped before erosion from the overtopped dam ate into its foundations.

The Oroville Dam episode lies somewhere between bellwether and dodged bullet. On one hand, there is a flock of failing infrastructure potentially set to follow it. On the other, this acute crisis must be seen in the context of a now chronic mismatch between the ideas used to manage water and the environmental triggers being pulled by human pressure on the planet’s water. There are no small stakes in the matter. The price tag to repair Oroville Dam hovers near $275 million; but the cost of continuing to manage water under assumptions of climatic stability will almost certainly not stop there. It is a hydrological harbinger; globally, climate change will put trillions of dollars of global assets at risk in addition to altering the conditions affecting earthly life.

Contemporary water problems, however, aren’t the latest episode in epics of water and nature. They also don’t fit standard explanations that plot events like those at Oroville Dam on a bell curve modeled on normal variability. Something more troubling, and more demanding of explanation, is afoot.

What is fundamentally amiss is that the model used to deal with water’s chance events has been called out not only because it is inadequate to the challenge of climate change, but because it also had (and continWaterues to have) a role in creating the problems it seeks to solve. Historically, water management in America was based on a peculiar cultural myth in which dams like Oroville were not just good for society but demanded by evolution itself—they were good, on this account, for the planet. Ironically, this myth is now being called out by water itself.

Water treats truth and fiction alike: relentlessly. In an age when climate change sends torrential rains on good ideas and bad, and likewise withholds waters with equally impersonal disdain, many claim our current situation is so novel that we should wipe the slate clean—start anew with a full view of humanity as a planet shaping force. Surely we need new ideas, but they are going to play out on a landscape built by those previous. The Oroville Dam cannot be abandoned as it stands. Yet it is not sufficient to merely patch the problems when water’s erosive force is set to undermine the foundations of both material and myth.

Jeremy J. Schmidt is Assistant Professor of Geography at Durham University and the author of Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity (NYU Press, 2017).

Site C Dam in British Columbia approved: the era of mega-dams is alive and well

I’ve mentioned previously the Site C Dam project in north eastern British Columbia (here and here). Now that project has been approved by the provincial government. It will be one of the most expensive dams ever built, with a current price tag now approaching $9 billion.

More to come no doubt, including likely court challenges from Treaty 8 First Nations that would be affected by Site C. I was up in the area this past September, and local opposition from a large cross section was evident in signs all along the main highway through the valley.

Indigenous peoples, dams and resistance: special issue of Tipiti now available

Some very interesting papers in this special issue. Here is the blurb from the journal website:

We are pleased to publish this issue of the journal (vol. 12/2), which features the debut of “Contemporary Debates”, in which ideally, both sides of an issue in Amazonia are addressed through short essays. The first such “debate” discusses hydroelectric dams in Brazilian Amazonia and is edited and introduced by Dr. Simone Athayde. Another new category in this issue is a photo essay, featuring the work of Curt Nimuendajú on the Rio Negro. We encourage submissions in these new categories for future publications. An article on ecotourism in Ecuador and book reviews complete the issue.



Rivers of ideas: Keynes’ Dams, Hayek’s Meanders and Aristotle’s Regimes

There is an interesting series being put together on British Columbia’s Site C Dam, which I have mentioned here before. The series can be found in reverse chronological order here. One of the interesting things I noted from one source used is that the top 3 mega-projects in Canada are all related to hydropower – so the era of big dams in that country (like many others) is far from over.

Thinking of these interconnections between water and economics reminded me of this video of a lecture by Martin Doyle that I was recently sent. Quite interesting…


Dams and the Anthropocene

Despite the proliferation of tens of thousands of mega-dams in the 20th century they are still being planned – a mega-dam is one that is over 15 meters high. A recently proposed one in Malaysia has been met with strong resistance. If you are curious about just how many big dams exist and when they came online, watch this short clip made by Bernhard Lehner:

The continued push for large dams is now coming from the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol, which you can download here. The protocol is being advanced by the International Hydropower Association. The protocol claims to advance a “neutral platform” for sustainable hydropower through multi-stakeholder consensus. This would be a real achievement, but I am highly doubtful that there is any neutral platform to be had – a point I’ve made and remade since writing the introduction to our book on water ethics.

I’m not alone in my critical stance. Reviews from several quarters are already taking issue with the new protocol. You can read responses from the International Rivers Association, who also include a way to have your input into the current 60-day window of consultation here.

But why should we care about the proliferation of large dams? This is a good question, to which there are lots of good, yet conflicting answers. It is interesting to me that these issues are rising alongside the Global Water System Project’s conference on water in the anthropocene. The concern with the Anthropocene is that humans are dominating global systems in a way that is pushing them into new and uncharted territory – where the conditions may be quite different from those in which many species and processes evolved.

Here is a video put together on water in the Anthropocene that looks at more than just dams. If it doesn’t work for you, click here.

More Big Dam controversy: the Environmental Assessment of British Columbia’s Site C Dam

There has been quite a bit of controversy over the proposed Site C Dam in North Eastern British Columbia.


Yesterday the environmental assessment was released. Lots of responses from the media (see here or here) for and against for this mega-dam (a mega-dam is anything over 15m high; Site C will be 60m).

There is already a mega-dam on the Peace River upstream of the proposed Site C Dam – the Bennett Dam is 180m high and, since 1968 has held back B.C.’s largest reservoir. Below the Bennett Dam, and also upstream of Site C, is the Peace Canyon dam.

Not long ago the journal Water Alternatives had a free special issue on Big Dams. In it, some of the world’s foremost authorities weighed in on the Big Dam controversy.

All of Water Alternatives articles are free, I should mention, and just require you to make a user name and password.