Europe Removed Dams at a Surprising Rate

Europe Removed Dams at a Surprising Rate

Editor’s note: Dams change the way rivers function and they impact water quality. Slow-moving or still artificial lakes heat up. This results in abnormal temperature fluctuations which affect sensitive species and lead to algal blooms and decreased oxygen levels. Organic materials build up behind dams and start to produce the perfect environment for carbon dioxide and methane producing microbes. Particularly, migratory species are badly affected by the presence of dams.

Although dams are being taken down in Europe and the US because people have begun to realize the dam-age they do to ecosystems, they are not coming down fast enough. Additionally, new ones continue to be built. At this point in the human caused ecological collapse of the planet’s life support systems, it would be best to leave dam building to the beavers. 

By Tara Lohan /The Revelator.

The 1999 demolition of the Edwards Dam on Maine’s Kennebec River set off a wave of dam removals across the United States. Since then some 1,200 dams have come down to help restore rivers and aquatic animals, improve water quality, and boost public safety — among other benefits.

Across the Atlantic, European nations have been busy removing thousands of river barriers, too. But until recently the efforts have gone largely unnoticed, even among experts.

Pao Fernández Garrido can attest to that.

An engineer and expert in ecosystem restoration from Spain, Fernández Garrido was finishing her master’s thesis in 2012 when she attend a dam-removal training in Massachusetts that was part of a conference on fish passage.

She was floored to learn about the United States’ widespread dam-removal efforts and returned to Europe determined to learn what was happening with dam removals on the continent — and to be a part of the action.

So did Herman Wanningen, a freshwater consultant  from the Netherlands, who also attended the conference. Fernández Garrido joined him when he founded the World Fish Migration Foundation in 2014. Soon after they helped form a coalition organization called Dam Removal Europe that also includes European Rivers Network, WWF, Rewilding Europe, the Rivers Trust, Wetlands International and the Nature Conservancy.

One of the first things Fernández Garrido and her colleagues wanted to know was the extent of river fragmentation on the continent. That wasn’t easy: While the United States has an exhaustive inventory of its 90,000 dams, not every European country, they learned, had collected similar data.

At the time not much was known beyond the fact that Europe had 7,000 large dams. But as their project to map river barriers, known as AMBER, got underway, they learned the on-the-ground reality included many smaller dams and other barriers — at least 1.2 million river barriers in 36 European countries.

Fernández Garrido and her colleagues spent more than three years on research, including river surveys in 26 countries, to gather the more robust data. Their results, published in Nature in 2020, found that on average river barriers occur almost every half mile.

Two-thirds of these barriers are under seven feet tall, but small doesn’t mean insignificant. Low-head dams and smaller obstructions like weirs and sluices can still block the movement of some fish, as well as aquatic plants, invertebrates, and the flow of sediment and nutrients.

Many of the dams — around 150,000 — are also obsolete and no longer provide any beneficial functions.

The good news, though, is that they also found that 4,000 European river barriers had already come down in the previous 20 years, with France, Finland, Sweden, Spain and the United Kingdom being the most active.

These efforts, though, had largely flown under the radar.

“Nobody was talking about these, nobody,” says Fernández Garrido. “The United States is celebrating that it has removed 1,200 and nobody’s celebrating in Europe because nobody knows.”

That’s changed as they continued with their work to compile research, organize supporters across the continent, and push policymakers for action.

In 2019 the researchers delivered a report on case studies of dam removals and their benefits to the European Commission. The following year the World Fish Migration Foundation published the first-ever Living Planet Index on the global state of migratory fish. It found that migratory freshwater fish populations in Europe had dropped 93% since 1970, much higher than the already dismal global average of 76%.

The cumulative weight of those findings may have had a big impact on policy.

That same year the European Commission published its biodiversity strategy for 2030.

“For the first time ever in history, it stated that we should free at least 25,000 kilometers (15,500 miles) of river in Europe from barriers by 2030,” says Fernández Garrido.

While that was welcome news, it was still only a guideline — not legally binding.

In May 2022, however, the commission followed up with a proposal called the EU Nature Restoration Law. “In this law, they say we must start removing dams,” she says. And the proposed language calls for restoring 15,500 miles of river to a “free-flowing state by 2030.”

The European Parliament will need to ratify the law in the next couple of years. “In the meantime politicians could work to weaken it,” she says. “That’s why environmental groups are working hard to keep it strong.”

On the ground, the work to restore free-flowing rivers continues.

Last year 239 river barriers were removed in 17 European countries, including more than 100 in Spain. Finland is in the process of removing three hydroelectric dams on the Hiitolanjoki River, which will aid salmon populations. And France is home to the tallest dam removal on the continent yet, the 118-foot Vezins Dam on the Sélune River in Normandy, which was removed in 2020. Demolition began this summer on a second dam on the river, La Roche Qui Boit, which will allow the Sélune to run free for the first time in 100 years. Migratory fish populations like salmon are expected to return, and the dam removals will also reduce toxic algae that pooled in the warm waters of the reservoirs during summer.

Some of this work — and more — is showcased in a new documentary, #DamBusters, by director Francisco Campos-Lopez of Magen Entertainment. The film follows Fernández Garrido across Europe as she meets dam-removal heroes in Spain, France, Estonia, Lithuania and Finland.

“Restoring nature is probably the job of our time, our generation,” she says in the film.

“Construction to remove Centreville Dam” by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

But it’s a process that will also take time.

“There are some river systems, like for example in North America, where the benefits of dam removal are shocking and so amazing because that river system was only blocked for only 100 years,” she tells The Revelator. “But when you are talking about recovering our river systems in Europe that have been controlled and mismanaged for 500 years, 600 years, 1,000 years, we have to be cautious about what we expect.”

But even if ecological restoration comes more gradually, political movement has been swift.

“The progress since we started in 2016 until now — having policies proposed at the European level — it’s amazing,” Fernández Garrido says. “It’s really an achievement.”

The combination of research, policy reports, political pressure and movement-building have kickstarted a river restoration effort that shows no signs of slowing down — and could be a model for other regions.

Photo by Yifu Wu on Unsplash

Dams or Fish. Choose one.

Dams or Fish. Choose one.

In the Pacific Northwest, fish cannot coexist with massive electricity demand.

by Max Wilbert

In 1980, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) was given a mission to protect and restore salmon and steelhead fish populations in addition to running the dams in the Columbia River Basin (the most dammed watershed in the world) for electricity generation.

There is a fundamental contradiction between the survival of fish and the existence of dams. To believe otherwise is to deceive yourself. As this new investigation shows, BPA has always prioritized electricity over fish.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, hydroelectric dams produce the vast majority of electricity. And they cannot be replaced with other energy sources quickly, because building new power plants, solar and wind energy facilities, transmission lines, etc. on a large scale takes decades. (And because people like me will fight to defend every scrap of wild habitat from these projects.)

“Just downriver, the half-mile-wide Bonneville dam chokes the Columbia to a halt. When the dam was built in 1937, Bonneville was the biggest dam in the world. Now, it’s one of the smallest of 14 major dams just on the main stem of the Columbia, and one of more than 500 dams in the watershed.”

— Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It

NB: Offshore wind is coming to Oregon and Washington, and it will be a disaster for seabirds [many of whose populations are already plummeting], fish, whales, other marine mammals, plankton, and our oceans. We who love the natural world must fight this.

This means that we have a choice, here in the PNW. Abundant electricity or fish. We can’t have both.

If we choose fish, that means we must get rid of the dams, which means we must reduce energy demand, and change many other things.

To me that is an easy choice.

This is not a new problem. Advocates for wild salmon and steelhead — those who truly stand with the fish — have been saying this for many years.

Either the dams go, or the fish go.

Max Wilbert is an organizer, writer, photographer, and wilderness guide. He is the co-author of Bright Green Lies: How The Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, which was released in 2021, the co-founder of Protect Thacker Pass, and is a longtime organizer with Deep Green Resistance.

Art by Liana Buzcka


    In What Image?
In what image have habitats been destroyed?
Small patch of woods in suburban landscape
chopped down for baseball fields and deck hockey rinks.
Destroying creation for recreation.
In what image? Baseball, hot dogs, apple pies and Chevrolets?
“Image” is an “artificial representation that looks like
a person or thing, copy, imitation, phantom.”
In what image have habitats been destroyed?
In God’s image?
As in “Then God said,
‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.
And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea
and over the birds of the heavens
and over the livestock and over all the earth
and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’”
Is this the blueprint for overpopulation, franchising and global corporations?
“And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply
and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over…’”
“…over every living thing that moves on the earth”
Is that the modus operandi for 24-7 surveillance?
Full spectrum dominance?
What’s wrong with the Winter image
of a snow-capped mountain
reflected in a crystal clear lake?
What’s wrong with an August lake
with the image of a forest reflected
upside down in still waters?
What’s wrong with the image
of a canoe gliding with fish and a clean river
in a gentle rain
under the stars?
What’s wrong with the image
of cloudy sky
in a dewdrop
on a flower?
If that’s not “God” then i’m an atheist.
What’s wrong with this picture:
a text with a photo of a sacred site,
oblivious that the site is slated for
the chopping block.
What’s wrong with this picture:
smiley family picnic
yet the trash they’ll leave
isn’t in the photo.
We don’t need to go to school
to learn how to
use our imaginations to make stuff up.
We need to look at what’s actually happening
and change what images we choose to copy.
STOP the choice of images of “sleek” “slick”
“sporty” “state of the art” “progress”
“because they’re doing it”
that destroy this fruitful world.
Let the Earth
and show us the way to live
with all the dizzying multitudinous array of natural images—
enough with the religio-corporate dominion over others.
Mankh (Walter E. Harris III) is a verbiage experiencer, in other words, he’s into etymology, writes about his experiences and to encourage people to learn from direct experiences, not just head knowledge; you know, actions and feelings speak louder than words. He’s also a publisher and enjoys gardening, talking, listening, looking… His recent book is Moving Through The Empty Gate Forest: inside looking out. Find out more at his website:
Hydroelectric  Dams Are Not Green

Hydroelectric Dams Are Not Green

Editor’s note: Hydroelectric dams are not green energy, despite many claims that they are. Hydropower kills rivers, displaces millions of human beings, drives anadromous fish and other life dependent on free-flowing rivers extinct, and actually releases substantial greenhouse gasses. This post includes a short excerpt from Bright Green Lies as well as an article detailing a destructive dam proposal in Bolivia.

Dams are Not Green Energy

Excerpted from Chapter 11: The Hydropower Lie of Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert

Once upon a time, dams were recognized for the environmental atrocities they are. Human beings understood that dams kill rivers, from source to sea. They understood that dams kill forests, marsh- lands, grasslands.

In the 12th century, Richard the Lionhearted (King Richard I of England) put in place a law forbidding dams from preventing salmon passage. In the 14th century, Robert the Bruce did some- thing similar for Scotland. His descendant Robert the III went even further, declaring that three convictions for killing salmon out of season would be a capital offense.

Fast-forward to today, when dams are claimed to provide “clean” and “green” energy.

Where’s Robert the III when you need him?

As recently as three decades ago, at least environmentalists still consistently opposed dams. But the coup that turned so much environmentalism away from protecting the real world and into a lobbying arm of favored sectors of the industrial economy has rhetorically turned dams into environmental saviors. And climate change activists are among the most relentless missionaries for the gospel of the green dam.

This issue is urgent. While here in the United States, no new large dams have been built in many years (although many shovel-ready proposals are waiting for public funding), large hydropower dams are being built around the world as quickly as (in)humanly possible.

Once again, environmental engineer Mark Jacobson is an exam- ple, as he always seems to be, of someone working hard to kill the planet in order to save it. His 100 percent “renewable” transition plans—and remember, bright greens and many mainstream environmentalists love this guy—call for building about 270 new large hydroelectric dams globally, each at least the size of the Hoover or Glen Canyon dams.6 He also calls for major expansions to existing dams by adding new turbines. His models rely heavily on hydro because solar and wind facilities are by their nature intermittent and unreliable.

In Bolivia, Indigenous groups fear the worst from dam project on Beni River

By Translated by Maxwell Radwin

  • More than 5,000 Indigenous people would be impacted by flooding from the construction of two dams in Bolivia, according to Indigenous organizations and environmentalists.
  • Successive governments have mulled the Chepete-El Bala hydroelectric project for more than half a century, and the current administration of President Luis Acre has now revived it as a national priority.
  • While Indigenous groups have successfully rejected the plan in the past, this time a group of 10 Indigenous organizations have signed an agreement with the state energy company approving feasibility studies.
  • If completed, the reservoirs for the project would cover a combined area larger than Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, and inundate an area that’s home to thousands of plant and animal species.

The Bolivian government has revived a long-held plan to build a hydroelectric plant in a corner of the country’s western La Paz department, sparking concerns about the potential displacement of more than 5,000 Indigenous people from the area.

The affected communities live in two protected areas, Madidi National Park and Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve and Communal Lands, parts of which would be flooded for the twin dams of the Chepete-El Bala hydroelectric project.

President Luis Arce, who served as minister of the economy in the earlier administration of Evo Morales, is following the same road map as his predecessor, who in July 2007 announced the original plans for the hydroelectric dams as a national priority.

Ruth Alipaz denuncia que más de 5000 indígenas de cinco naciones perderán sus territorios. Foto: Chema Formentí. dams are not green energy
Since 2018, there have been concerns that around 5,000 Indigenous people would be impacted by dam construction. Image courtesy of Chema Formentí.

The idea to generate hydropower in the Beni River Basin, specifically in El Bala Gorge, has been around for more than 50 years and given up on numerous times due to its economic unfeasibility and high environmental cost. The last time it was rejected by Indigenous communities was during the Hugo Banzer government in the late 1990s, before being nearly resurrected under Morales, Bolivia’s first Indigenous president.

Since then, the issue had largely faded for the six Indigenous communities that live in the area: the Mosetén, Tsiman, Esse Ejja, Leco, Tacana and Uchupiamona. The groups are now speaking out against the hydropower project, saying it would “cut off” the three rivers vital to their existence: the Beni and two of its tributaries, the Tuichi and Quiquibey.

“This would mean forced displacement and that means taking away our territory. We would be forced to leave our space, our ancestral domain,” said Alex Villca, a member of the National Coordinator for the Defense of Indigenous Peasant Territories and Protected Areas (Contiocap) of Bolivia. “We would be giving up what is most important: without territory there are no Indigenous peoples. This would be accepting a silent death. Wherever they take us, it would never be the same.”

The Indigenous leader said the problem goes even further. He said that in the Chepete mountains, some Indigenous peoples live in voluntary isolation — believed to be Mosetén, although there aren’t many studies to confirm this — and that they would be “totally” affected if the dams were constructed in the area. “We know from our brothers that there exists, in the peaks of the Chepete, a community in voluntary isolation that must be unaware of all these plans. Imagine how that would affect them if this project comes to fruition,” Villca said.

Tenders resumed

In 2021, Bolivia’s National Electric Energy Company (Ende) resumed the commissioning of the Chepete-El Bala project, announcing tenders for geological and geotechnical studies. The state-owned company said that in the case of the Chepete plant, the planned reservoir area would flood 46 square kilometers (18 square miles) of the total area of 3,859 square kilometers (1,490 square miles) of the Pilón Lajas reserve. The reservoir at El Bala, meanwhile, would cover 94 km2 (36 mi2) of the 18,895-km2 (7,295-mi2) Madidi park.

reservoir in the tropics - dams are not green energy
El Bala Gorge on the Beni River. Image courtesy of Chema Formentí.

In August, the Office of Indigenous Peoples of La Paz (Cpilap) signed an agreement with Ende authorizing the final design studies for the Chepete-El Bala project.

The agreement establishes that Cpilap must “allow the entry of Ende Corporation and its contracted companies to the areas of direct and indirect influence in order to carry out research, information gathering, socialization and data collection that allows studies, the creation of projects, to finalize the design to implement electric power generation, transmission and distribution.”

Villca spoke out against the signing of the agreement. “What worries us is that the tenor of the agreement is that it not only allows for complementary studies but also, in the future, allows Ende to start construction of the Chepete and El Bala hydroelectric plants. This is much more serious.”

Cpilap is a regional organization that brings together 10 Indigenous organizations in La Paz department: the Indigenous Council of the Tacana Peoples, the Office of the Indigenous Leco de Apolo, the Leco Indigenous People and Larecaja Native Communities, the Mosetén Indigenous Peoples Organization, the Indigenous Peoples of de San José de Uchupiamonas, the Esse Ejja of Eiyoquibo Indigenous Community, the Regional Council of T-simane Mosetén of Pilón Lajas, the Native Agroecological Community of Palos Blancos, the Tacana II Indigenous Communities of Rio Madre de Dios, and the Captaincy of the Araona Indigenous People. All of these organizations, according to Villca, are connected to Arce and Morales’s ruling party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS).

Gonzalo Oliver Terrazas, president of Cpilap, said five of the six affected Indigenous communities agreed with the hydropower project. The sixth community are the Mosetén, who didn’t sign the agreement. “This agreement doesn’t mean that the dam will be built,” he said. “The goal is to determine the feasibility or infeasibility of the project. Another important aspect that the agreement has is the social component, which we have included so that there can be electricity and housing projects.”

The Association of Indigenous Communities of the Beni, Tuichi and Quiquibey Rivers, an organization started in 2001 to defend the ancestral territories of the six Indigenous communities impacted by the project, has demanded that a prior consultation be carried out with the communities to approve or reject the project. The communities met over one weekend and decided to reject the government initiative, demonstrating that there are leaders for and against conducting feasibility studies for the project.

The hills of El Bala near the town of Rurrenabaque. Image courtesy of Chema Formentí.

“We remind [the government] that in 2016 there was a 12-day vigil and the expulsion of the Geodata and Servicons companies that had started work and studies in the territory without fulfilling a free, prior and informed consent [FPIC] consultation in good faith so as to receive the consent of the communities,” said a document published by the association.

Terrazas said the signing of the agreement with Ende doesn’t mean there won’t be consultation with Indigenous communities. He said that if the feasibility of the project is approved, a consultation will be carried out with the communities to approve or reject the construction of the hydropower plants.

In January 2018, Ende returned the prefeasibility study to the Italian company Geodata Engineering for correction. Geodata recommended “to postpone the development of the El Bala 220 hydroelectric plant until the conditions in the Bolivian energy market and abroad indicate that it is convenient to start its implementation.”

City-size reservoir

The project, which would start after a public tender is launched, would flood at least 662 km2 (256 mi2) of land for the two dams, according to Indigenous groups. Combined, the two reservoirs would cover an area five times bigger than Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. And if the dried-out salt lake of Poopó, in the department of Oruro, doesn’t recover, Chepete-El Bala would be the second-biggest lake in Bolivia after Titicaca.

The project calls for building the first dam in the Beni River’s Chepete Gorge, 70 km (43 mi) upstream from the town of Rurrenabaque, in the department of Beni, and the second near El Bala Gorge, 13.5 km (8.3 mi) upstream of the same town.

dams are not green energy
The town of Rurrenabaque, which would have two dams upstream. Image courtesy of Chema Formentí.

The Chepete dam would raise the water level to 158 meters (518 feet), forming a lake that would be 400 m (1,312 ft) above sea level. The dam at El Bala would raise the water level by 20 m (65 ft) and its reservoir would be 220 m (721 ft) above sea level. Unlike the Chepete dam, which would be a concrete wall, the dam at El Bala would consist of gates and generators in the middle of the river.

Extinction and displacement

According to the Solón Foundation, an environmental NGO, a total of 5,164 people would be relocated for the project, the majority of them Indigenous. The area is also home to 424 plant species of plants, 201 land mammals, 652 birds, 483 amphibians and reptiles, and 515 fish species. It’s not clear which species are most likely to go locally extinct as a result of the flooding, or how many would be affected.

The main fear of the Indigenous communities in the area is that the construction of both dams would mean forcibly displacing more than 5,000 residents. The construction of the second reservoir at El Bala, according to the Solón Foundation and Indigenous organizations opposed to the project, would flood the entire community of San Miguel del Bala. There’s no official information on a displacement plan for the communities more than 1,000 residents.

And with the construction of the Chepete reservoir, a little more than 4,000 Indigenous people would be displaced. All the populated areas affected by the reservoir, according to Geodata, have collective titles belonging to the Tacanas, Lecos and Mosetén peoples. Additionally, development on the river could interfere with the livelihoods of many residents, who fish and farm and, in more recent years, oversee communal tourism activities.

Chepete Gorge on the Beni River would be dammed to power a hydroelectric plant. Image courtesy of Alex Villca. - dams are not green energy
Chepete Gorge on the Beni River would be dammed to power a hydroelectric plant. Image courtesy of Alex Villca.

Valentín Luna is an Indigenous Tacana leader and head of the San Miguel del Bala community. Currently, there are at least 20 eco-lodges that have been built in the Madidi and Pilón Lajas protected areas. Most of these initiatives are managed by the local communities. Four of these eco-lodges would be flooded by the dams, according to Luna: one in Chalalán overseen by the Uchupiamonas, one run by San Miguel del Bala residents, one in Villa Alcira, and one run by the Chimanes and Mosetén of Asunción del Quiquibey.

For the Indigenous people who don’t want the dams in their area, the main worry isn’t the end of tourism. They fear that the six Indigenous groups will disappear along with it.

This piece first appeared in Mongabay.

Banner image of Chepete Gorge on the Beni River, located 70 kilometers (43 miles) upstream of the village of Rurrenabaque. Image courtesy of Alex Villca.

Will Falk’s Life-Centered Writing

Yakama Nation calls for removal of Columbia River dams

Yakama Nation calls for removal of Columbia River dams

Editors note: The Columbia River has been turned into a slave of civilization, forced to provide hydroelectricity, barge transport, and irrigation water to cities and big agribusiness. It is shackled in concrete and dying from  dams, from overfishing, from toxins, from nuclear waste, from acoustic barrages and armored shorelines and logging and endless  atrocities.

We at Deep Green Resistance do not believe that the federal government will accede to demands such as these. Furthermore, there are thousands of dams currently under construction or proposed worldwide. There are millions of dams in the “United States.” The salmon, the Orca whales—they have no time to waste. Everything is heading in the wrong direction. Therefore, we call for a militant resistance movement around the world to complement aboveground resistance movements and to dismantle industrial infrastructure.

Featured image: The Columbia River is constrained by Bonneville Dam, and bracketed by clearcuts, highways, and utility corridors. Public domain.

Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, October 14, 2019, the Yakama Nation and Lummi Nation hosted a press conference urging the removal of the lower Columbia River dams as part of a broader call for federal repudiation of the offensive doctrine of Christian discovery, which the United States uses to justify federal actions that impair the rights of Native Nations. The press conference took place this morning at Celilo Park near Celilo Village, Oregon.

“The false religious doctrine of Christian discovery was used by the United States to perpetuate crimes of genocide and forced displacement against Native Peoples. The Columbia River dams were built on this false legal foundation, and decimated the Yakama Nation’s fisheries, traditional foods, and cultural sites,” said Yakama Nation Tribal Council Chairman JoDe Goudy. “On behalf of the Yakama Nation and those things that cannot speak for themselves, I call on the United States to reject the doctrine of Christian discovery and immediately remove the Bonneville Dam, Dalles Dam, and John Day Dam.”

The doctrine of Christian discovery is the fiction that when Christian European monarchs obtained what was for them new knowledge of the Western Hemisphere, those monarchs had a religious right of domination over all non-Christian lands. This doctrine was propagated by the Roman Catholic Church through a series of papal bulls in the 15th century, including a papal bull authorizing Portugal to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans” and to place them into perpetual slavery and take their property. The Roman Catholic Church then implemented a framework where the right to subjugate the Americas was split between Spain and Portugal, although they were later joined by other European states. The doctrine was therefore one of domination and dehumanization of Native Peoples, and was used to perpetuate the most widespread genocide in human history.

In 1823, the United States Supreme Court used the doctrine of Christian discovery as the legal basis for the United States’ exercise of authority over Native lands and Peoples. See Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823). The Court found that the United States holds clear title to all Native lands subject only to the Native Nation’s right of occupancy, which the United States can terminate through purchase or conquest. In relying on the doctrine of Christian discovery, the Court described it as “the principle that discovery gave title to the government . . . against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession.” Id. at 573. The Court used this religious doctrine of domination and dehumanization to unilaterally deprive Native Nations of their sovereign rights, racially juxtaposing the rights of “Christian peoples” against those “heathens” and “fierce savages.” Id. at 577, 590.

In the years that followed, this false religious doctrine became the bedrock for what are now considered to be foundational principles of federal Indian law. In United States v. Kagama, 188 U.S. 375 (1886), and Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, 187 U.S. 553 (1903), the Court announced Congress’ extra-constitutional plenary power over all Indian affairs—the plenary power doctrine — which it justified by pointing to Native Nations’ loss of sovereign, diplomatic, economic, and property rights upon first ‘discovery’ by Europeans. In The Cherokee Tobacco, 78 U.S. 616 (1870), the Court applied the doctrine and held that Congress can unilaterally abrogate Treaty rights with subsequent legislation unless there is an express exemption provided in the Treaty—the last-in- time doctrine. In Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, 435 U.S. 191 (1978), the Court deprived Native Nations of criminal jurisdiction over non-members based on the statement in M’Intosh that Native Nations’ rights “to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished” by European ‘discovery’ — the diminished tribal sovereignty doctrine. These legal doctrines have been weaponized against Native Nations ever since, including by Congress in authorizing construction of the Bonneville Dam, Dalles Dam, and John Day Dam without the Yakama Nation’s free, prior, and informed consent.

The history of the lower Columbia River dams can be traced back to 1792, when United States Merchant Robert Gray sailed up our N’chi’Wana (Columbia River) and claimed the territory for the United States. Mr. Gray entered our lands and performed a religious doctrine of discovery ceremony by raising an American flag and burying coins beneath the soil, thereby proclaiming dominion over our lands and our families without our knowledge or consent. Following the War of 1812, the United States and England falsely claimed joint authority over what became known as the Oregon Territory until 1846, when England relinquished its claim south of the 49th parallel. Having eliminated British opposition, Congress passed the Oregon Territorial Act of 1848 and the Washington Territorial Act of 1853. Both Territorial Acts reserve the United States’ claim to the sole right to treat with Native Nations, thereby maintaining the federal government’s doctrine of Christian discovery-based claims.

At the Walla Walla Treaty Council in May and June of 1855, the Yakama Nation’s ancestors met with United States representatives to negotiate the Treaty with the Yakamas of June 9, 1855. Article III, paragraph 2 of the Treaty reserves the Yakama Nation’s “right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed places . . .” including many places throughout the Columbia River basin. At no point during these negotiations did the United States express a claimed right of dominion over the Yakama Nation’s traditional lands that would allow the United States to unilaterally ignore the Treaty. Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens did not explain that the United States would dam the rivers and violate the Yakama Nation’s Treaty-reserved fishing rights without the Yakama Nation’s free, prior, and informed consent.

What followed was a 100-year conquest of the Columbia River by the United States. First, the United States Supreme Court paved the way by affirming federal regulatory authority over navigable waterways like the Columbia River in Gilman v. Philadelphia, 70 U.S. 713 (1866), and Congress’ extra-constitutional plenary authority over Indian affairs in United States v. Kagama, 188 U.S. 375 (1886). Congress then exercised this supposed authority by passing a series of legislative acts without the Yakama Nation’s consent, including Rivers and Harbors Acts, Right of Way Acts, the General Dams Act, the Federal Water Power Act, and the Bonneville Project Act, all of which facilitated construction of the lower Columbia River dams without regard for the Yakama Nation’s Treaty-reserved rights.

During the Depression, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act authorizing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to approve public works projects like the Bonneville Dam. Construction started in 1933, but President Roosevelt’s approval of the project was quickly deemed unconstitutional in Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495 (1935). The authorization was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority from Congress to the President. It should have been deemed unconstitutional under the United States Constitution’s Supremacy Clause — which says the Treaty of 1855 is the “supreme law of the land” — because it was inconsistent with the rights reserved to the Yakama Nation by Treaty. Any argument to the contrary is an argument that Congress has plenary power over Indian affairs rooted in the false religious doctrine of Christian discovery.

Congress quickly re-approved the Bonneville Dam’s construction, which was completed in 1938. The Dalles Dam was built from 1952 to 1957, and the John Day Dam was built from 1968 to 1972. The Yakama Nation, as co-equal sovereign and signatory to the Treaty of 1855, never approved the construction of these dams. They inundated the villages, burial grounds, fishing places, and ceremonial sites that we used since time immemorial. Celilo Falls was the trading hub for Native Peoples throughout the northwest. The United States detonated it with explosives and drowned it with the Dalles Dam. After the Dalles Dam’s construction had already started, the United States negotiated an insignificant settlement with the Yakama Nation for the damage caused by the Dam. This was domination and coercion, not consent.

Today, the lower Columbia River dams stand as physical monuments to the domination and dehumanization that the United States continues to impose on Native Nations under the false religious doctrine of Christian discovery. “Columbus Day is a federal holiday celebrating the Christian-European invasion of our lands under the colonial doctrine of Christian discovery. Today, the Yakama Nation rejects that narrative by celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day and calling on the United States to remove the lower Columbia River dams that were built without our consent using the same false religious doctrine,” said Chairman Goudy.

How Do Dams Fall? Conversations with the Colorado River

How Do Dams Fall? Conversations with the Colorado River

Featured image: Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. © Michelle McCarron

     by Will Falk / Voices for Biodiversity

I need to come clean. When I joined Colorado River Ecosystem v. Colorado, the first-ever federal lawsuit to seek personhood and the rights of nature for a major ecosystem, my intentions were not completely sincere. The truth is, I never thought we had a chance in hell. I saw the lawsuit as an opportunity to guide concerned people through a process that would shatter their false hopes, replace them with experiential knowledge of the vast difficulties inherent in working for change within the legal system and catalyze more effective action.

The lawsuit failed, of course. The Colorado Attorney General privately threatened the attorney representing us, Jason Flores-Williams, with sanctions if he did not withdraw the case. When he refused, the Attorney General formally filed a request for sanctions with the court and a motion to dismiss in the same afternoon. Flores-Williams, afraid that he could not respond adequately to both the sanctions and the motion to dismiss, voluntarily withdrew the case.

When filing a lawsuit, however, it’s best not to proclaim publicly that you expect the case to fail. Judges jealously guard their calendars from anything they perceive to be a waste of time. Corporate and government lawyers vigilantly monitor individuals involved in cases filed against them for any opportunity to argue that novel legal theories like the rights of nature are frivolous, to label them as attempts to harass corporations or government, and to demand that they be punished with sanctions. Media pundits search for audio clips and social media posts to take out of context while accusing grassroots groups of filing lawsuits as a backhanded fundraising ploy.

At the same time, and in order to shatter as many hopes as possible, it was necessary to attract attention. No one likes a loser. If our supporters caught so much as a whiff of my true disbeliefs, when the case failed, they could mistake the failure as the result of the half-assed efforts of activists who weren’t truly committed, instead of the result of a legal system designed to protect exploitation of the natural world.

So I suspended my disbelief and dove zealously into the work. For four months, the lawsuit was my full-time job. I sifted through case law for opinions supporting our position. I wrote a portion of the document, called the “complaint,” that signaled the official filing of the lawsuit. I wrote a series of articles describing the need for the rights of nature. I gave interviews to journalists, radio hosts and members of Comedy Central’s The Opposition production team.

And I bit my tongue over and over again.

In the five weeks before the case was dismissed, I put 4,000 miles on my 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee traveling with photographer Michelle McCarron around the Colorado River Basin. After all that stress, my poor Jeep’s transmission blew up yesterday, so I have nowhere to go and nothing to do but reflect. With time so short and the need for effective action so great, I wonder if I wasted my time appealing to a legal system that exists to protect those destroying the natural world. I wonder if I betrayed the trust of the good people rooting so hard for the lawsuit to succeed. Worst of all, I wonder if I betrayed the river.


I bit my tongue on the steps of the Alfred A. Arraj Federal Courthouse in Denver, for example. I stood before a crowd gathered to hear me speak about the lawsuit. We were supposed to have a hearing, but the court had postponed it at the last minute. With so many of us traveling to Denver from across the Colorado River Basin, we decided to proceed with the press conference anyway.

© Michelle McCarron

It wasn’t the anxiety that public speaking can induce that produced the tremor in my hand, the acid in my gut and the quiver in my voice. It was a simple question, unresolved: Is it dishonest to speak of hope when you feel none?

I began my speech explaining that I had arrived there after spending three weeks with the river. I recounted the violence I witnessed in La Poudre Pass, where the Grand Ditch lies in wait to steal the Colorado River’s water moments after the union of snowpack, sunshine and gravity gives her birth. I reported the energy expended in pumping the river’s water uphill from Lake Granby reservoir to Shadow Mountain reservoir and then into Grand Lake before the Alva B. Adams tunnel drags the water 13 miles across the Continental Divide and beneath Rocky Mountain National Park to meet Front Range demands. I described the view from Palisade, Colorado, where peaches are grown in the middle of the desert and crisscrossing canals, seen from the mountains, appear as vast, mechanical tattoos sewn into the flesh of the land.

I paused at this point, knowing that after presenting my audience with this series of distressing images, I was supposed to leave them with a positive message. While I reflected on what I had seen and said, however, I felt the river’s truth spill over me.

For weeks, I thought I had been listening to the Colorado River. But she isn’t a river anymore. Not truly. She has been so diverted and dammed, experienced so much extraction and exploitation, that the best way to describe her is not as a river, but as an industrial project, as a series of tunnels, concrete channels and canals, as another tortured corpse stretched across civilization’s rack.

While this realization washed over me, I considered our lawsuit and the rights of nature. I wondered if it is possible to grant rights to a ghost. I questioned whether the Colorado River could ever recover from what’s been done to her. Grief threatened to overwhelm me, to silence me in despair. If I had been by myself, caught in the flow of these emotions in private, or if I was simply being honest, I would have fallen to the concrete and wept. I steadied myself and as the despair trickled away, rage rushed in to take its place. That rage burned with the heat of the desert sun reflected in the Colorado’s face and I knew that, ghost or not, she who haunts is not dead.

But, again, I said nothing of her rage, of her attempts to knock down dams, of her furious floods. I said nothing to acknowledge her ghost. Instead, in calm, reasonably legal tones, I urged the crowd to support the rights of nature.


The case is now finished. I can stop biting my tongue and spit the blood out. I can be honest. If I betrayed you, I am sorry. If I betrayed the river, I beg forgiveness. As an act of penance, I offer the stories that follow. These stories are what I really think. These stories are what I wish I said when the journalists were scribbling down my words, when I sat, live and on air, at the radio microphones, and when the cameras were recording. These stories are the truth.

We listed the river as the only plaintiff, so it could be properly said that the Colorado River herselfwas suing the State of Colorado. Major ecosystems are not currently considered capable of bearing rights or filing their own lawsuits under American law, so I agreed, with four others, to serve as a “next friend” of the Colorado River. Similar to guardians ad litem, next friends represent the interests of those deemed legally incompetent, such as children, the mentally disabled and rivers.

Simply put, next friends speak for those who can’t speak for themselves.

On a general level, it’s not difficult to understand the Colorado River’s interests. A simple Google search will tell you that pollution kills the river’s inhabitants, climate change threatens the snowpack that provides much of the river’s water, and dams prevent the river from flowing to the sea in the Gulf of California. But, friendship, even legal “next friendship,” entails an intimate and personal relationship. To best represent the Colorado River’s interests, to be her friend, I wanted to build this intimate, personal relationship with her. To build a relationship with someone is to speak with her, to spend time with her, to listen to her. And that’s what I did.

My trip with Michelle around the Colorado River Basin was guided by two questions. Everywhere we went, I asked the Colorado River: “Who are you? And, what do you need?” I asked these questions out loud, so she could hear them. I will not apologize for talking with a river.

© Michelle McCarron

The Colorado River speaks, but apparently not in a language many humans understand. Water is one of life’s original vernaculars, and the Colorado River speaks an ancient dialect. Snowpack murmurs in the melting sun. Rare desert rain drops off willow branches to ring across lazy pools. Streams, running over dappled stones, sing treble while distant falls take the bass.

I am human, so I am an animal. Even though the colonization of generations of my ancestors, personal trauma and cultural conditioning threaten to deafen me, I am still capable, through my animal body, of hearing the languages of life. And I believe you are capable, too. If you’ll only try.

Though the lawsuit failed, I made a friend. When your friend is in grave danger, you do everything in your power to protect her. If you don’t, you cannot call yourself her friend. The Colorado River is in grave danger and as her friend, I know I must do everything I can to protect her. If my animality gives me the ears to listen, friendship requires that I find the tongue to translate the languages of life.

Human, animal, friend…these three existences combine and compel me to translate her voice from the languages of life into English.


To truly understand someone, you must begin at her birth. So, Michelle and I spent two days looking for the Colorado River’s headwaters in the cold and snow above La Poudre Pass on the north edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. The pass was accessible by an unpaved, winding, pot-holed trek named Long Draw Road. It took us fourteen miles through pine and fir forests and past the frigid Long Draw Reservoir before ending abruptly in a flat where the red trunks and brown branches of winter willows braced themselves against the breeze.

The road was covered in an inch of frosty mud that required slow speeds to avoid sliding into roadside ditches. The road’s ruggedness and incessant bumps combined with sub-freezing temperatures to ask us if we were serious about seeing the river’s headwaters. I was worried that Michelle’s ’91 Toyota Previa might struggle up the pass, but the van continued to live up to the Previa model’s cult status.

Long Draw Road foreshadowed the violence we would find at the river’s headwaters. Swathes of clearcut forests escorted us along the road to the pass. The Forest Service must have been too lazy to remove any single trees that fell on the road because their employees had simply chainsawed every tree within fifty yards of the road. About three miles from the road’s end, we ran into a long, low dam trapping mountain runoff into Long Draw Reservoir. We had been expecting to find wilderness in La Poudre Pass, so encountering the dam felt like running into a wall in the dark.

The clearcuts, dam and reservoir were grievous wounds, but none of them were as bad as the Grand Ditch. We walked a quarter-mile from the end of Long Draw Road and found a sign marking the location of the river’s headwaters. On our way to the sign, we crossed over a 30-foot deep and 30-foot wide ditch pushing water from west to east. We were on the west side of the Continental Divide, where water naturally flows west, so we contemplated what black magic engineers had employed to achieve this feat. The ditch was as conspicuous in La Poudre Pass as a scarred-over gouge on a child’s face.

© Michelle McCarron

The Grand Ditch was begun in the late 1880s, dug by exploited crews armed with hand tools and risky dynamite. It was built to carry water, diverted from the Colorado River’s headwaters, east to growing cities on Colorado’s Front Range. About two feet of swift water ran through the ditch. Even before melting snowpack forms the tiny mountain streams identifiable as the Colorado River’s origins, water is stolen from her. Pausing in a half-foot of powder, I wondered whether the water stored here would end up on a Fort Collins golf course or stirred by the fins of a vaquita porpoise in the Gulf of California.

I asked theColorado Riverfor the tale of her nativity. She described her birth from a wild womb formed by the oceans, the sun’s consistency, heavy winter clouds, tall mountain peaks and snowpack. She rues that heremergence from this womb led immediately to her exploitation. And the young Colorado River hates the violence that will follow her the rest of her life.


In most places, life protects themodern human’s fragile sense of self-importance by veiling the weight of time in the soft accumulation of soil, by disguising the vastness of the universe in the reassuring consistency of an undisturbed horizon and by salving existential angst with a diversity of nonhuman companions. There are places, however, where life refuses to disguise herself and human self-importance disintegrates.

The red rock deserts and canyon lands of southeastern Utah, where we followed the Colorado River, are some of these places. The reality of time, frozen and piled where the land was rent into mesas and plateaus, crashes down on human consciousness where human bones shiver in the shadows and foreshadows are whispered by stones, boulders and the bones of the land.

© Michelle McCarron

She beckoned us south through these lands. She fled through the sheer red rock walls that she sculpted as monuments to her power. She paused, at times, in warm pools, to let the colors of stone reflect from her face and to rejoice in her own beauty. To interpret her work as vanity is to misunderstand; only her creations are worthy of her celebration. The waters flowing through our bodies coursed against our skin and tugged on our veins, yearning to mingle with their kin. We ached with regret for the moment life would necessarily drag us from her banks.

Mesmerized and seeking the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, we got lost in Canyonlands National Park. We failed to reach the confluence, and thus failed to speak with the two rivers. At first, we were angry with ourselves. We ended up hiking close to fourteen miles in seven hours, up canyon walls abruptly rising six or seven hundred feet, through a rainstorm and across canyon floors covered in several inches of loose sand using muscles we forgot we had. We thought we had done it all for nothing. Worst of all, feeling a responsibility to tell the Colorado River’s story, we thought that we had let the river down.

© Michelle McCarron

But the deeper I think about it, the clearer an image of the river, waving through the orange sunshine of a desert dusk, becomes. She seems to smile with the compassionate gleam of a wise elder. You should have known,” she says. And now I do: We did not simply miss the cairns, lose the trail, and end up five miles south of the confluence and six miles from our cars after sunset. No, we lost more than the trail. We lost our self-importance. And only humility remained.


Water is life. But water is also death. Water brings a pleasant taste to the parched tongue, but water also brings stinging numbness to the warm-blooded. Water taken through the esophagus brings hydration. Water taken through the lungs brings suffocation. Water may be disrespected for a time, but the longer the passage of water is hampered, the angrier water becomes. Water has a long memory and, where others forget, water carries pollutants and poisons for decades.

When I think about what it would mean to fully recognize the rights of the Colorado River to exist, flourish, regenerate and naturally evolve, I know the river will demand a reckoning. I know this lyrically and I know this ecologically. Lyrically, the river is full of righteous rage. Ecologically, too many humans have come to depend on the exploitation of the river and the rest of the natural world. The balance that must be achieved will come with profound pain. Humans will die, their lifestyles will be dramatically changed and those who require the gifts of civilization will see those gifts taken.

The black waters of the dammed Blue and Colorado Rivers stroked the Dillon Reservoir walls with their dark thoughts and taught me these lessons. It was several hours after sunset and well below freezing. A certain morbidity rose from the artificial lake and crystallized to hang in the air. Somewhere out of sight, but perilously near, I could feel the stirrings of anger. I sensed that the anger was slow to swell, but irresistible when fully aroused. I was mesmerized by the stars spilling over ripples and by the crescent moon’s silver threads, two nights from new, dancing across the water. In the town of Dillon below, harsh electric lights sparked and crackled with a troubled tension.

The images came unbidden. The first faint crevice appeared in the earth-filled wall. Water hissed as it pushed through. Rivulets appeared as tears rolling down the dam’s face. Then, a series of sharp cracks rang out like the reports of heavy ordnance announcing the onset of battle. Earth and stone blasted away to fall into the valley. Water rushed into Dillon. Poles holding power lines snapped like toothpicks. Chunks of asphalt were ripped up. Automobiles flipped and tumbled like pebbles on a creek bed. Factory outlet stores, gas stations and multistory hotels were washed away.

© Michelle McCarron

The white torrents that cascaded from the broken dam were flecked with joy. The waters retook the Blue River’s original path. The waters from the Colorado, knowing they would never rejoin their mother, were gladly adopted by the Blue. It was all over in a matter of minutes. This sudden demonstration of natural power passed and a quiet peace settled where Dillon once stood. The peace wasn’t without pain. Human bodies floated facedown among the wreckage. The water regretted the deaths, but knew the human bodies would be broken down and used to heal the wounds humanity had created.

As the vividness of the images faded, I was left with the echo of a warning. I recalled all the dams in the Colorado River Basin, all dams everywhere, and I prayed that a peace could be made with the dammed waters of the world.

© Michelle McCarron


I have seen the silver sparks of minnows playing under brown stones. I have watched the wind shower gray pools with gold cottonwood leaves. I have been washed away in the vertigo caused by the river’s speed conflicting with the primordial stillness of canyon walls. Arundhati Roy wrote, Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”

I’ll never be able to drive past a dam in the Colorado River Basin and ignore the highly endangered bonytail chub who can no longer visit most of their traditional spawning beds. I’ll never be able to read the billboards praising the peaches of Palisade, Colorado, or the melons of Green River, Utah, without remembering dried up willow forests where the songs of nimble southwestern willow flycatchers have fallen silent. And whenever I close my eyes to recall the Colorado River, that blue ribbon twisting through rocky mountains and red rock canyons, I won’t be able to unsee her suffering.

© Michelle McCarron

As I process the last four months, I’m left with Roy’s brilliant words: I am no longer innocent and it is time to be accountable. Disbeliefs may only be suspended for so long before they slither through slits in the veil separating consciousness and subconsciousness as anxieties. Anxieties, similarly, may only be silenced for so long before they push through lips and teeth as words.

Disbeliefs, anxieties and words, when true, spawn in reality. The reality is that the loss of life on Earth currently outpaces our various resistance movements’ responses. Those in power enforce infinite growth on a finite planet. The planet’s life-support systems are resilient, but they can be pushed beyond their ability to recover. This means there is a deadline. While it is unclear when that deadline will pass, the deadline exists. If we do not stop the assaults on the planet’s life-support systems like the Colorado River, life on Earth may be impossible for a very long time, if not forever. We have little time to waste on ineffective tactics.

Hear the white crash of her torrents on the boulders she drags through the desert, feel the unyielding red rock she pushes through, lose your balance in the impatience of her swift streams, and you’ll know: The Colorado River needs to provide her waters and yearns for her home in the sea.

© Michelle McCarron

In all my time spent listening, I did not hear her speak of a judge’s gavel, of evidentiary proceedings or of the State of Colorado’s motion to dismiss. She cited no precedent, no binding legal authority and no argument made by silver-tongued attorneys. She did not fear questions of jurisdiction or the threat of sanctions.

No, her fears are physical and real. She fears poisonous mercury and too much selenium. She fears climate change causing less and less snow to fall and depriving her of replenishment. She fears dams.

If I could start the lawsuit all over again, maybe I would refuse the interviews, refuse to write the complaint, refuse to write anything at all. Instead, I would insist that you sit on the river’s banks, listening. And if you hear the Colorado River’s rage as she slaps the face of a dam, you’ll know that court orders aren’t the only way dams fall.

© Michelle McCarron

This article and the photos therein are the sole property of Will Falk and  © Michelle McCarron and may not be reproduced or republished elsewhere without the explicit permission of the author or photographer. 

This article originally appeared at Voices For Biodiversity.  VFB is grateful to the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) for introducing us to Will Falk and Michelle McCarron. CELDF is doing excellent work helping communities fight for nature’s rights and we are honored to collaborate with their team.