“The Dirty Dam Truth” – Boston Globe op-ed

6 August 2021

The dirty dam truth, Boston Globe op-ed by Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert


The dirty dam truth, Boston Globe op-ed by Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert
Excess water spills over the top of a dam on the Lower Klamath River known as Copco 1 near Hornbrook, Calif. in 2020. A plan to demolish four dams on California’s second-largest river to benefit threatened salmon has sharpened a decades-old dispute over who has the biggest claim to the river’s waters. The project, if it goes forward, would be the largest dam demolition project in US history and would include the Copco 1 facility pictured. Gillian Flaccus/Associated Press

The Dirty Dam Truth
The Boston Globe
Ryan Gellert
August 5, 2021

“Hydropower is often marketed as the kind of clean, renewable energy we’re supposed to want. It’s what dam developers have been claiming for decades. But a growing body of scientific research shows just the opposite.”

The Biden administration has taken unprecedented action to confront climate change during its first months in office, from reentering the Paris Agreement on day one to announcing an ambitious greenhouse gas emissions target. But as the president works with Congress to pass the American Jobs Plan, he has an opportunity to address an equally important but often overlooked aspect of the climate crisis: dams and hydropower. They contribute to climate change, send species to extinction, and displace communities. Dams are destructive relics of the past and have no place in an America vying to be a leader in clean energy, water sustainability, and environmental protection while creating the jobs of the future.

In Massachusetts, the recent removal of three dams on the Mill River reconnected more than 30 miles of blocked fish habitat, reduced the risk of flooding, and removed public safety hazards. At Patagonia, we’re proud to stand with Indigenous communities in opposing Hydro-Québec’s plan to build a 145-mile hydroelectric transmission line from Canada to Lewiston, Maine, through ancestral territories and carbon-capturing forests — while advertising it to Massachusetts electricity ratepayers as a climate solution. We also support efforts by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, other environmental groups, and state agencies there to remove four dams on the Kennebec River that threaten the survival of endangered Atlantic salmon.

Mill River, at the site of a decommissioned dam
A surveyor walks the banks of the Mill River, at the site of the former Whittenton Pond Dam, just upstream from downtown Taunton, Mass., July 25, 2018. CHARLES KRUPA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Hydropower is often marketed as the kind of clean, renewable energy we’re supposed to want. It’s what dam developers have been claiming for decades. But a growing body of scientific research shows just the opposite. Of the 91,457 dams in the United States, it is estimated that 75–90 percent no longer serve any functional purpose and are detrimental to ecosystem health and water quality. Dams flood millions of acres of wetlands, grasslands, and forests, killing plants and reducing carbon sequestration. And research shows that the reservoirs they create add nearly a billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air every year, mostly in the form of methane released as the submerged vegetation and trapped nutrients from upstream break down and bubble potent greenhouse gases to the surface.

As global temperatures rise, dams and their stagnant reservoirs become more harmful and less efficient. Fish are perishing in, and downstream of, warming reservoirs coast to coast. And, as we’re witnessing right now in the drought-stricken West, dams are proving to be an unreliable and unsustainable water supply and energy solution. More numerous fires, floods, and erosion are filling reservoirs with sediment, reducing storage capacity. With shallow waters, even more of this essential resource is lost to evaporation. A United Nations study found that reservoirs evaporate more water than is used by people. Investing in groundwater recharge, aquifer storage, and better management offers a less expensive and more efficient solution. Stanford researchers have found that the storage capacity of underground aquifers in California dwarfs the storage capacity of all reservoirs in the state combined and that groundwater storage costs much less than dam storage.

Meanwhile, dams threaten the river systems that move nutrients from land to ocean, feed plankton and fish, provide clean water for millions of people, protect vulnerable areas against floods and droughts, and transport about 200 million tons of carbon to the ocean each year. Many cultural sites and ancestral lands important to sovereign tribes and Indigenous people remain submerged behind dams. And as vital sediment sits trapped behind dams, coastal communities lose an essential tool for replenishing beaches, fighting coastal erosion, and fending off rising sea levels. By contrast, the removal of dams can quickly reverse this trend and grow the shoreline. Just months after the removal of two large dams on Washington’s Elwha River, the river’s sand and cobble delta grew almost 100 acres of new land out into the sea.

In addition to the harm they cause to people and the environment, dams are hideously expensive. Once dams are built, maintenance costs can be astronomical. All told, it would cost more than $70 billion to rehabilitate US dams.

The dirty dam truth, by Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert
The Iron Gate Dam, powerhouse and spillway on the lower Klamath River near Hornbrook, Calif.,GILLIAN FLACCUS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Not only does removing dams help reduce emissions, restore former carbon sinks, and increase climate resilience — it allows us to spend money once used for costly dam maintenance on truly renewable, clean energy and more sustainable water solutions. All of this comes with enormous benefits to ecosystems, like providing a real chance at survival for the many endangered runs of keystone species like Pacific and Atlantic salmon, and the many species and communities that depend on them. Plus, the cost of removing a dam is often much lower than the cost of maintaining one.

The Biden administration must take three crucial steps. First, it should include significant funding for dam removal in the American Jobs Plan, while excluding new dam investments. We can build back better while creating jobs and fighting climate change, all while benefiting tribal, rural, and economically marginalized communities. Second, it should direct the Environmental Protection Agency to require that all dam facilities study, evaluate, and report data on their full carbon footprint (carbon emissions and lost sequestration). Finally, it should remove electricity produced by hydropower dams from all US clean energy standards and strengthen Federal Trade Commission guidance around false environmental and climate claims related to dam facilities and hydropower.

The American Jobs Plan can be a profound step forward for our country, and for the protection of our planet, especially if the United States harnesses this opportunity to remove the destructive dams of a bygone era and invest in the more efficient, less harmful solutions now available. But we have to act fast. The public needs to urge President Biden and Congress to exclude any new investments in dams in the 21st Century Dams Act and infrastructure package — except for urgent safety matters — and instead use the legislation to fund dam removal.

We can’t afford to miss this chance to end our reliance on these outdated, expensive, harmful structures of the past and make smart investments in our country’s future. The nation’s health — and ours — depends upon it.

Ryan Gellert is CEO of Patagonia.

Reports on Hydro fiascos in Manitoba and B.C. expose the rot at Crown-owned utilities

4 March 2021


Transmission lines, Globe and Mail
Full text of this excellent piece by Konrad Yakabuski in the Globe and Mail, March 4, 2021
Misery loves company. And so it was that taxpayers in Manitoba and British Columbia found themselves commiserating last week with the release of separate reports detailing the mismanagement and dissimulation that has left them to foot the bill for uneconomic hydroelectric projects championed by provincial monopolies with dreams of empire.
The reports on Manitoba Hydro’s Keeyask dam and B.C. Hydro’s Site C generating station were eerily similar in how they enumerated the factors that led to massive cost overruns on both projects, beginning with complacent politicians and a lack of independent oversight at the government-owned utilities that had promoted them. The reports also read much like the findings of an earlier inquiry into the financially ruinous Muskrat Falls project in Newfoundland and Labrador.
In all three cases, provincial premiers allowed their better judgment to be clouded by a desire to build personal legacies in the form of gigantic dams that they perhaps hoped might one day be named after them. They allowed the heads of their respective Crown-owned electrical monopolies to indulge their own empire-building instincts to pursue those projects based on rosy assumptions concocted to dazzle unsuspecting taxpayers and avoid scrutiny.
Politicians of all stripes fell into this trap. In Manitoba, it was former New Democratic premier Gary Doer’s government that authorized construction of Keeyask dam and Bipole III transmission line, the costs of which have ballooned to $13.4-billion from an initial estimate of $9.7-billion, and led to a tripling of Manitoba Hydro’s debt in 15 years.
In 2008, Mr. Doer declared that “hydroelectricity is Manitoba’s oil,” suggesting his have-not province might get rich by exporting power to midwestern U.S. states hungry for clean energy. This was always a pipe dream, since continental electricity prices were already then beginning a steep descent because of a glut of cheap natural gas and the increasing attractiveness of alternative sources of renewable power. The oil-electricity analogy was also highly misleading. In 2019, for instance, Canada exported $87-billion worth of crude oil. Electricity exports totalled a mere $2.5-billion, mostly from Quebec.
As last week’s report from an independent review of Keeyask and Bipole III, led by former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, concluded: “The incomplete analysis of the projects, driven by government endorsement, a construction contract that deferred construction risk to Manitoba Hydro, and a lack of effective project oversight at the corporate level, led to project delays and significant cost overruns.”
As a former right-leaning premier of an oil-producing province, Mr. Wall may not have been the best choice to lead the review commissioned by Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative Premier Brian Pallister. But his exhaustive report, which runs more than 14,000 pages with appendices, should put to rest charges by Mr. Doer and others that this was just a partisan exercise.
In B.C., former provincial deputy finance minister Peter Milburn’s report on the Site C fiasco found a similar story of politicians rushing to sign off on a megaproject without due diligence. In this case, it was former Liberal premier Christy Clark’s government that gave the go-ahead to Site C in 2014, forgoing a prior independent review by the B.C. Utilities Commission.
Premier John Horgan’s New Democrats, which had opposed Site C in opposition, put in place a “project assurance board,” or PAB, that was supposed to keep tabs on B.C. Hydro. It also hired consultants Ernst & Young to provide an additional layer of oversight. But the PAB, Mr. Milburn found, was stacked with B.C. Hydro board members, while E&Y appears to have been systematically kept out of the loop by officials at the provincially owned utility.
“Ultimately, B.C. Hydro determined the amount and type of oversight they would receive from EY,” Mr. Milburn wrote. “This appears inconsistent with the concept of independent review and with B.C. Hydro’s commitment to government.”
Astonishingly, Mr. Horgan has chosen to make only cosmetic changes at B.C. Hydro in the wake of Mr. Milburn’s report and a jaw-dropping revision to Site C’s budget. The project is now slated to cost $16-billion, or almost twice the $8.7-billion it was estimated to cost in 2014, with no guarantee that further problems won’t still arise as B.C. Hydro seeks to reinforce Site C’s shaky – literally – foundations.
Mr. Doer and Ms. Clark may have thought they were following in the footsteps of the visionary premiers of the past – Manitoba’s Duff Roblin and B.C.’s W.A.C. Bennett – by developing their provinces’ hydroelectric potential. But those earlier mid-20th-century projects were pioneering feats that paid off because of the unbeatable natural attributes. Keeyask, Site C and Muskrat Falls were subpar in comparison.
That all three projects were allowed to proceed speaks to the rot within Canada’s Crown-owned electrical utilities. It is beyond high time someone cleaned house.