Dam busting is a grand tradition of American environmentalism. In 1966, when the Sierra Club and allies got Congress to prohibit new dams in the Grand Canyon it was “a turning point, the biggest victory yet for conservation,” according to the PBS documentary A Fierce Green Fire.
At the innermost center of an environmentalist’s hell “stands a dam,” wrote John McPhee, the godfather of nature writing, back in 1971. “Possibly the reaction to dams is so violent because rivers are the ultimate metaphors of existence, and dams destroy rivers.”
The environmental movement was so successful in its opposition that it effectively ended all major dam building in the United States. But blocking that source of low-carbon power, did nothing to quench the growing thirst for electricity. More often that not, fossil fuel-fired power plants came to replace hydropower, using water from those undammed rivers to cool their boilers, according to a recent study by Edson Severnini, an assistant professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.