How To Set A River Free

To river lovers, Glen Canyon Dam is the Death Star and Voldemort combined. Blocking the Colorado River, it stands 750 feet tall and a third of a mile wide, and drowned 186 miles of Glen Canyon, along with 96 side canyons. When the dam was completed in 1966, it transformed the Colorado through the Grand Canyon from a wild flood-prone, sediment laden desert river into a clear, cold, engineered flow, changing beaches, river-running and river ecology.

Glen Canyon Dam has been in the crosshairs of river lovers for 50 years, inspiring periodic dreams od removal and the occasional short-lived public debate when parts of Glen Canyon emerge from Lake Powell during droughts.

It’s not the only hydroelectric establishment to fall under scrutiny. Four dams on southeastern Washington’s lower Snake River: Little Goose, Lower Monumental, Lower Granite and Ice Harbor, have also been a target of river advocates since Snake River salmon were listed under the Endangered Species Act in the 1990s.

Massive like these make headlines, but they also obscure key facts about rivers and dams. For every large federal dam like glen Canyon or Lower Granite, there are thousands of minor ones: nearly 80,000 small dams restrict the rivers of the U.S., and while lawsuits about the Snake River dams drag into their third decade, river lovers have been quietly clearing smaller clogs…

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This feature article first appeared in the Early Summer 2015 issue of Rapid magazine.


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Paddling, writing and saving wild places have been part of Neil’s life since before he was tall enough to see over his cockpit coaming. In addition to his regular Reflections column celebrating the rich culture of sea kayaking (page 153), he’s written about expeditions, science, river policy, photography and ecology. He lives in Oregon, where he started an environmental nonprofit and where the paddling season is 12 months long.


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