The battle for water is on in the American west. Reeling from a year of drought that produced the lowest snowpack in the Sierra Nevada in almost twenty years, government officials and others have turned their attention to the region’s rivers, where an aging generation of dams is provoking questions about the future of managing water resources.


In the past year, there have been calls (and lawsuits) to remove over a dozen dams throughout California, Oregon, and Washington, with a focus on the Klamath, Snake, and Elwha rivers. It is a pivotal moment for the west. Most of the dams were built in the early twentieth century and though many of them now require costly upgrades to stay open, some westerners have come to see them as an immutable part of the landscape.


Restoring riverine ecology after almost a century of alteration is no simple task, and state and local agencies, utility companies, farmers, fishermen, and environmentalists (to name but a few) all see things a little differently. In a nutshell, the proponents of removing the dams argue that doing so will help revive the dwindling salmon populations in the rivers and promote tourism and recreation. Opponents say that removal will reduce benefits such as clean hydroelectricity, irrigation, flood control, and shipping lanes.


On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal ran a long op-ed from Shikha Dalmia that attempted to skewer environmentalists with one of the most obvious and problematic contradictions in the dam saga: removing them will mean losing a source of renewable energy that would most likely be replaced by an emissions-producing alternative such as natural gas or coal. “Dam the Salmon,” reads the headline. Dalmia, it would seem, thinks she has found evidence of liberal hypocrisy. “If their opposition to the Klamath hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest is any indication,” she writes, “the greens, it appears, are just as unwilling to sacrifice their pet causes as a Texas rancher is to sacrifice his pickup truck.”


Dalmia is right in one sense, that the energy tradeoff is a significant contradiction, but her attempt to cast this problem as a rebuke of the entire environmental movement is feeble and premature. In her lead paragraph Dalmia opens with this straw man: if Al Gore likes “hectoring Americans” about the environment so much, why hasn’t he “convinced his fellow greens to rethink” dam removal? Good Lord. What does Al Gore have to do with this? First, there are already plenty of voices and many intelligent minds picking over the dam problem. Second, there is still no solution, and plenty of resistance to replacing clean power with dirty power. Because of their size and ability to so drastically alter the natural landscape, questions about whether or not we remove old dams are immensely complicated. Irrigation, transportation, and development are all factors, and western authorities may yet come to an ecologically responsible solution that takes them all into account. Furthermore, environmentalists are not the only group taking a counterintuitive position.


Dalmia, an analyst at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, criticizes environmentalists for having “rejected all attempts by PacifiCorp, the company that owns the dams, to take mitigation steps such as installing a $350 million fish ladder to create a salmon pathway.” Yeah, except that PacifiCorp is actually unsure about whether or not it wants to drop that kind of coin in order to renew its operating permit; instead, the company is thinking demolition. Farmers, who depend on the rivers and dam system to get their crops to market, are also beginning to sympathize with ecological restoration and the plight of the salmon, and they are thinking that a rail line might suit them just as well as the waterways.


The national press has actually done a decent job of covering the tangle of arguments that feed into the debate. Each dam and each river has its own confounding circumstances. In particular, two articles in The New York Times, by Felicity Barringer and William Yardley, did a good job of laying out some the Catch-22s surrounding the Snake and Klamath rivers, respectively. What is best, removing the dams or leaving them be? Who knows? This is a tough problem that addresses no less than a radical alteration of the western landscape and the way those states manage natural resources. To reduce it all to sheer liberal hypocrisy, as Dalmia has done, is either incredibly naïve or, more likely, disingenuous.

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.