Not-so-Clean Hydropower is Damming Us All

Kayakers enjoy the rapids at one of the proposed locations for the Slave River Hydropower project. This is truly one of my favorite spots in the world. Along with a nesting colony of white pelicans I migrate North to visit it year after year. (Photo by Leif Anderson)

By Natalie Anderson

While I was in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories (NT), Canada, this summer observing and measuring wood floating down the Slave River for my dissertation work on Mackenzie River driftwood, I attended a local town hall meeting facilitated by Alberta member of Parliament Linda Duncan about what the town of Fort Smith can do to ensure that they will have their voices heard at a national level regarding future hydro development of the Slave River corridor in the face of the river’s de-listing as a navigable waterway in 2012 (Northern Journal, Aug 6 2013, CBCnews, Oct 18, 2012).

The Canadian navigable waterway act  is one of the country’s oldest pieces of legislation, dating back to 1882, and provides federal oversight to any proposed project in a river, lake, or ocean that could float a canoe.  Prior to 2012, more than 2 million waterways were listed.  Now, fewer than 200 are.  Most proponents of the de-listing feel that it will eliminate redundant provincial-federal red tape, streamlining projects on small ditches and streams.  They maintain that large waterways are still protected.  The Slave River is big (~0.5 km wide with summer flows ~4,000 cms), has a rich history as a shipping/trading corridor, but is no longer protected even though waterways upstream and downstream are.

Most townspeople (NT residents) are making connections between this seemingly cherry-picked delisting of the Slave River and a large-scale >800 megawatt hydropower project (and 500 kw/500 km North-South transmission line) proposed by TransCanada and ATCO Power to be built in their backyard just a few kilometers upstream in Alberta (Calgary Herald, March 20, 2008).  If the Slave is not re-listed federally, the Government of Northwest Territories would have little say in a project that, built by Alberta, would provide power primarily for southerners and mining industries while the environmental impacts would be shouldered by northern communities (Northern Journal, Aug 13 2013).

In speaking to me about the hydropower project, François Paulette, elder and environmental leader for the Smith’s Landing First Nations Band–whose land would be flooded–said: “Why do they call it clean energy, where do they come up with this word, ‘clean’? It is not clean.”

This strong stance by Smith’s Landing is right now the main impediment to the project going forward (Northern News Services, Feb 18, 2013).

As a geologist who studies rivers (a fluvial geomorphologist), I couldn’t agree more with François and his intuitive understanding of the land. This year, the World Bank, after two decades of refusing to fund large hydropower projects, is back in with big hydro in order to combat world poverty due to climate change (Hydro World, May 30, 2013).  Dam building for hydropower, especially in developing countries, is occurring at alarming rates (The Atlantic, May 20, 2013).  As a scientist and concerned global citizen, I will use the proposed Slave River project to help me make my case against big hydropower as a source of clean, renewable energy.

People deserve better reasons to oppose this than, “it will degrade the environment,” “it will flood a pretty place,” or “we will lose such and such animal or plant.”  How about this: large dams are societal hazards, pollutants, non-renewable, and economically unsound.

Large Dams are Societal Hazards

When large dams are built they often require relocation of people from lands that are to be flooded.  The number of people displaced by upstream flooding can be relatively small, as in the case of  the Slave River project, or can be huge, as in the case of the 1.2 million people displaced from the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China (Biello, 2009).  In either case, the strife encountered by displaced people is very real and long-lasting, no matter the compensation offered.

It is estimated that globally, between 40-80 million people (mostly the poor and indigenous) have been displaced, usually involuntarily (Namy, 2007).  The displaced suffer economic and cultural declines as well as high rates of mental and physical illness (see Namy, 2007 for further explanation).  Political conflict can also occur because dams are built upstream by one group of people or nation, depriving the downstream group or nation of its water.

Many reservoirs themselves are recognized health hazards; they can be breeding grounds for waterborne illnesses spreading infectious disease , they promote the growth of toxic algal blooms impacting drinking water, and they accumulate contaminants delivered from up basin in the reservoir sediment (Wildi et al., 2004). Heavy metals (often mercury) and other toxins cascade up from the benthic zone through the food web, becoming concentrated in fish, birds, mammals and humans.

For people in Fort Smith, this should be of special concern since the Athabasca oil sands are upstream (Northern Journal, July 8 2013).  Their sister community of Fort Chipewyan has already noticed the negative impact the oil sands have had on the environment and their health (Vancouver Observer, June 30, 2013).  A long-anticipated cancer study is about to begin (Fort McMurray Today, Feb 20, 2013).

After large dams are built large populations come to depend on them and thus they become a weak point in water, energy, flood, and food security.  A recent example is the threat that the Rim Fire has had on the quality of drinking water and supply of electricity from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir to 2.5 million people in San Francisco (CBS, Aug 28, 2013).  Communities which would not exist without the presence of the dam, such as Las Vegas, are especially at risk should the dam lose capacity or cease to operate.

While dams do provide flood control for average flooding events, they give people an erroneous sense of security resulting in extensive development on floodplains.  During big infrequent events, these communities are flooded and loss of property and life is the consequence (Prairie Fire, May 2009). The detrimental effect that dams have on downstream riverside ecosystems leads to decreases in food security by reduction of game, fish, and fertile farmlands–impacting 472 million river-dependent people worldwide (Richter et al., 2010).

Due to the USA’s dependence on dams for water and electricity and the threat to civilian lives if one should fail, it is no surprise that after September 11th security was heightened at most large dams in the U.S. to protect citizens against organized or individual terrorist acts (CSO, Oct 26, 2009).

Large dams are “natural” disasters waiting to happen. If a dam should fail for any reason (poor construction/maintenance, earthquake, attack, etc.), the catastrophic flooding is sure devastation for communities living downstream.  In addition, reservoirs can reactivate faults and trigger earthquakes because their weight places stress on major fault lines and lubricates existing fractures with water.  Research indicates that this may be what caused the Sichuan disaster in May 2009, leaving 80,000 dead (The Telegraph, Feb 2, 2009).

Although the proposed Slave River dam will not have a large reservoir behind it, it is likely that it would increase groundwater, probably exacerbating an already recognized problem with landslides.  In 1968 a large landslide that delivered a large portion of the town into the river is still vividly remembered by residents (Northern Journal, Aug 26, 2013).

Dams can be a hazard affecting people globally, not just those downstream.  For example, dams slightly change the tilt of the earth’s axis and gravitational field (NY Times, March 3, 1996) and can impact extreme precipitation patterns (Hossain and Jeyachandran, 2009) and global circulation patterns (Maser, Aug 23 2012).  Dams also increase coastal erosion by depriving deltas of sediment.  This, coupled with sea level rise, is a severe concern for shoreline communities since it increases their risk during large storm events (Stewart, 2005).

Large Dams are Polluters

It is estimated that global hydropower currently produces the energy equivalent of several thousand coal-fired power plants (Biello, 2009), and thus is viewed as an appealing clean alternative. However, large hydroelectric plants are very dirty polluters themselves.  Often hydopower projects are financially feasible because they have customers from high carbon-emitting industry partners.  ATCO Power has made it clear that they consider the presence of the Athabasca oil sands as a plus because the miners of that material would be guaranteed long-term purchasers of their energy. Financing the high cost for construction will be a safe bet for Alberta since ATCO won’t likely default on their loans (Northern Journal, Jan 15, 2013).  It is ironic then that a ‘clean’ energy source will mostly provide energy for the rapid growth and expansion of not-so-clean energy extraction.

One of the most pressing global pollution issues today is nitrogen pollution from extensive use of fertilizers to the world’s oceans, causing the spread of dead zones and the collapse of world fisheries (NPR, Aug 18, 2008).  Dams play a large role in the export of this nitrogen to the ocean by decreasing the frequency of inundation of water onto floodplains, thus decreasing a river’s ability to denitrify its waters before it gets to the ocean (Gargel et al, 2005).  After the completion of large dams on the Slave and Athabasca, it is likely that residents of the Great Slave Lake will start seeing algal blooms to the detriment of their fisheries, especially as the climate continues to warm.

Scientists have shown that hydropower contributes significantly to the greenhouse effect through the release of substantial amounts of methane gas to the atmosphere.  For example, it is estimated that in 1990 the Tucuruí Dam in Brazil released more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere then Sao Paulo (Scitizen, Jan 9, 2007).  In large bodies of water, methane gas is found in the colder waters near the lake bed.  In natural waters this methane gas is released as bubbles slowly rise to the surface (Bastviken et al, 2005).  However, hydropower facilities substantially increase methane release to the atmosphere by using the cold water, high in methane, from the bottom of the reservoir to run through their turbines.

Large Dams are Unsustainable

Hydropower is often touted as a renewable, sustainable form of energy because water is commonly seen as a renewable resource.  While small hydropower in the form of instream turbines probably is renewable, any hydro project that puts a dam across a river isn’t.  All dams have a useful working lifetime and for many dams this is shorter than you may think. The Hoover Dam has reduced power production by 23% since it came into operation, and in 2010 was at the lowest levels it has been since the 1930’s when it was filled (Circle of Blue, Sept 20, 2010).  Water levels in the lake will conceivably be low enough by 2025 to require operators to shut off power production that 29 million people depend on.

There are several reasons for the loss of power-generating capacity:  infilling of reservoirs with sediment, evaporation, and less water availability from melting snowpack due to climate change.  ATCO Power has stated that it wants to build a “run of the river” dam with minimal reservoir storage.  If there is a small reservoir then it also has the capacity to fill with sediment faster, especially since the Slave River has very high levels of suspended sediment, ranging from 3-5600 mg/L (AANDC, 2013).  After the dam is built, ATCO will probably have to build another dam upstream in order to capture the sediment to keep the hydro facility functioning at full capacity.

A river carries many things besides water, however.  A dam cannot be “run of the river” because it serves as an impoundment by which, not just water, but sediment, nutrients, and organisms cannot pass.  This blockage of the natural flux of materials up and downriver has devastating environmental effects; effectively contributing to species loss, decimating fisheries, and starving floodplain lands of much needed nutrients and water (Richter et al., 2010).  The  environmental impact that the W.A.C Bennett dam has had on the Athabasca delta upstream of the Slave River is well documented (Environment Canada, 2013) and strongly felt by residents of Fort Chipewyan (Northern Journal, Jan 22, 2013) .

Large Dams Are Economically Unsound

Although hydroelectricity is cheap to produce, dams are not cheap to build and costs to the average citizen are very high.  The Slave River project is estimated to cost ~$5-7 billion, taking at least ten years to get a return on the investment (Northern Journal, Jan 15, 2013).  Most large projects are backed by the government (you – the taxpayer) or, for developing countries, by the World Bank (Washington Post, May 8, 2013).   Most hydropower projects have overly optimistic benefit projections, since dams do not operate at full capacity due to declining availability of water, evaporation, environmental flow releases, sediment infilling, climate change and/or political situations.

Once you add in the cost of mitigating effects of the dam such as food scarcity, flooding, pollution, relocation, ecosystem rehabilitation, countering risks of natural disaster, and cleaning up disasters that do occur (paid for in suffering by those affected and monetarily by the taxpayers) the cost-benefit for the average citizen just doesn’t pan out.  China is now recognizing the real unplanned costs of building the $23 billion Three Gorges Dam lies in mitigating permanent social, ecological, and geological damage (Global Research, Feb 8, 2013).

The Future

I firmly believe that the way of the future and the solution to our energy woes lies in the next big thing in energy: decentralization (Roberts, Feb 26, 2013, Dolezal, Feb 6, 2012).  Decentralized, localized, diverse sourcing of energy avoids the waste of long transmission lines, is robust to failures of any one system, doesn’t damage the environment in irreparable ways, and will provide wider access to more people.  Large hydropower projects requiring big dams do not fit into this picture, but perhaps in-river turbines that don’t require a dam do (Eaton, Dec 23, 2008).

The argument doesn’t have to be about hydropower or no hydropower; it should rather be about what kind of hydropower.  The Slave River may be a perfect location to install a series of in-river turbines as a part of the renewable and clean energy plan for Canada.

In response to Chief Cheyeanne Paulette citing environmental reasons for not allowing feasibility studies to continue in 2010, one supporter of the Slave River Hydropower dam wrote [you] “live in the stone age, paulette [sic], you hypocrite!” (CBCnews, Oct 18, 2010). Big dams were originally built in ignorance of their widespread consequences.  They are a vestige of the Industrial Age.

It is time that we moved forward and start considering solutions to our problems fitting of the Information Age. We have the information, now let’s act responsibly.  If you clogged most of your arteries in your body, you would no longer be able to live.  Likewise, if we keep clogging the rivers of the Earth, don’t be so sure that this planet will be able to support life as we know it.  The current spurt of damming of large rivers in the name of obtaining renewable clean energy is a global crisis.  I plead for the sake of humanity: let’s stop staunching the flow of our rivers and choose to live.

Map of all large dams in the World from the GRanD database.

Natalie Anderson has received support for her work on Mackenzie River driftwood from the National Geographic Society. She is also a Sustainability Leadership Fellow with Colorado State University’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability (SoGES). View the program’s blog, HumanNature

Note: All views are those of the author, and not necessarily National Geographic.

  • Robert Rhodes

    If CO2 is the deniers’ fertilizer, then AGW earthquakes are the EssoKochs’ Rex Tillersons’ plowing the cities and fireballs from meteors are his rain.

    I was graciously allowed to predict “impossible”global warming (AGW) predictions in the blog comments of the peerless article:
    “News bites: As UN report looms, warming slowdown hinders policy advance
    By Ben Geman – 09/23/13 06:58 AM ET”
    ~9:30 AM CST 9/23/13 under my icon and oldest comment.

    Remember – a tentacle of EssoKochs and the extreme GOP, “Climate Depot takes full responsibility for the fate of your children and grandchildren from any future man-made climate catastrophe” and it’s foul website, climatedepot.com, has been offline today, 9/25/13.

    With condolences, impossibly correct AGW predictions include:
    a). killer Peru and b). Reykjanes Ridge quakes (2 out of 34),
    2 volcanoes (c. Kilauea and d. Ubinas – 2 out of 23),
    e). a cracked magnetosphere,
    f). an exploding filament on the Sun,
    g). a fireball descending on Wyoming,
    h). a comment on the killer Pakistan quake, and
    I). an explanation of legal AGW murder and warfare by some of the participants.

  • Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    The article appears to be one sided view point. The author did not look at pros and cons. It is clear this article is from person(s) anti-dam and ant-hydropower. Let me give some clarifications on some issues. In olden days navigation was a means of transportation but now we have several of them. The navigation causing oil spills pollution which is a major corn. Hydropower is clean. We need dams and power to feed growing population unabated and to meet their other basic needs. In the past wars used to control population growth. Now no such devastation. The author talks of degradation of environment and health hazards. Water in the dams moves away with rains. The pollution is not due to dams but it is basically due to chemical inputs agriculture technology. This was introduced to meet the greed of some western multinational companies. The author talks of displacement due to dams & Hydropower. With agriculture becoming uneconomical, rural population are migrating to urban areas for greener pastures. The urban population is expected to reach 50% of the total population by 2050. Terror impact on dams and consequently on humans. We are experiencing devastating impact on habitats through earthquakes, hurricanes/typhoons/cyclones/tornadoes, etc. The author argues that large dams are unsustainable but the question even the human life is unsustainable and changing with the time and technology from good to worse.

    We need dams [big and small], we need to go for interlinking of rivers, we need to utilize cheap and clean hydropower.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

  • Kathryn Elich

    Very interesting article – brings you down to the grass roots results of dams. This seems to be the age of dam sprawling but looking at those maps it has already been occurring. Man is making a mess of things.

  • Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy


    IPCC is now presented its new report. In this connection I would like to bring to your kind information some points – three questions and answers.

    1. “According to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, sea levels on average have been 20 centimeters higher than they were in the 1880s. Water levels are rising at 3.2 millimeters per year, which is double the 20th century trend.”

    In the past on several forums I made the following observations but nobody come forward to respond my question: (1) San Francisco Airport is in the Ocean waters. Was there any rise in sea water level at this point? — so far no change [I visited several times]; (2) In Italy along the coast, traditional and historical wells showed no change in sea level; (3) It is generally argued that the sea level raise submerged the Sundarbans at the mouth of Ganga River in the Bay of Bengal and villages along Bramhaputra River in Bangladesh — all this is inaccurate statements. Here the silt deposition from these two mighty rivers causing the submergence of Mangroves and hutments; (4) Also, destruction of Coastline for commercial activities and destruction of Mangroves allowed sea water entering into nearby villages and thus people are attributing it to sea level rise; (5) In several parts, sea sand is lifted for other uses and thus causing the sea water entering in to nearby areas; and (6) Boston area was filled [artificially built] and with the storm surges it looks something happened.

    Also, sea temperatures are higher in some places and some other places they are cool associated with general circulation patterns existing generally in those zones. These infect the sea level temporarily — natural variations. Unless we analyze region-wise by taking into account on ground variations in the light of general circulation, natural variations & physical impacts, all model estimates are speculative in nature and create sensation that pickup media.

    2. “ocean acidification [due to higher CO2 levels] and warming are causing species like jellyfish to overrun other species in the sea and bleaching and decreasing growth of coral reefs”

    In the oceans, temperature change and along with carbon dioxide change is a historical fact. They clearly indicate a clear cut cyclic variations — I put this in my book “Climate Change: Myths & Realities” published in 2008. As this is not new the life in the ocean automatically adopt to these variations. There is a need to look into other man induced pollution factors in to ocean waters angle to understand their impact on coral reefs as well other species in the ocean. Our research, therefore, must direct to understand the cause and effect mechanism. With the preconceived ideas we go nowhere. This is exactly what is happening now. This is bad science — though many a times such studies are published in reputed journals, as editorial boards work “you scratch my back and I scratch your back”.

    3. “The physical principles behind climate change are simple, well known since the 1800s, and won’t wait for this fake debate to end.”

    This point I did not understand, here climate change means a de facto global warming or all issues pertaining to changes in climate. As per global warming there are no clear cut physical principles. We can see in the literature every other day a new issue comes up. Now, even IPCC also changed and telling urban-heat-island affect also contributing to global warming by about 10% — initially they did not accounted this –. There are several other issues like natural variation component, solar components, ecological changes components [that influence local and regional climate], physical impacts on ecological sensitive zones like ice, etc. It is not clear on the link between carbon dioxide and temperature. It is a statistical link. It varies with the accumulation of data series period and it does not explain the physical relationship.

    The main component that at present influencing climate and extremes is the natural variations — systematic & irregular variations — and ecological changes such as changes in land use and land cover — effect local and regional climate and thus change the natural variations to that extent. At Antarctica the sea ice melt in the last six years is above the mean while it is below the mean in Arctic area.

    Three things to consider:

    1) Why don’t they just show the annual temperature graph? They always thought it most appropriate in the past.

    2) Why do they begin this graph in 1850? Anthropogenic Climate Change, according to their report, could not have started before *19* 50 (a hundred years later). So why isn’t the chart, and all the ballyhooed temperature increase, started in 1950?

    3) If AGW didn’t start (couldn’t start, actually, as we hadn’t yet added the CO2 to the atmosphere), what caused the temperature rise starting in 1890? Whatever that cause is, what made that cause stop and suddenly change to CO2 -caused in 1950?

    Models present a monotonic increase as the models are built with some preconceived notions — that means what you are able to think only goes in to the model. Nature in fact acts differently based on several unknown and known factors. So, the real pattern goes on changing with the time.
    However, this is affected by scientists manipulation of data and changes in land use and land cover as weather is highly sensitive to such variations. Also, we are experiencing changes due to man’s physical actions and manipulation of terrain. These changes are alarmingly increasing with population growth and changing technologies to meet their lifestyles and needs.
    In global models such factors taken in to account rarely. Also natural disasters do change the terrain conditions. And above all, the natural variations are not the same over different parts of the globe.

    Instead of talking on a generalized term “global warming”, it is more appropriate to use the term “regional climate changes”. This is more useful in regional planning.
    Global temperature data is manipulated, global carbon dioxide data is manipulated. Meteorological data collection is changing with the time over land and in/on oceans with network and instrumentation changes. Satellite data is highly manipulated!!!

    In 70s & 80s, before encroachment of global warming in to climate studies, before starting analyzing rainfall data by clubbing the rainfall of different rain gauge stations, we used to homogenize the rain gauge stations in terms of rainfall patterns. This helped to understand the climate of different parts in a region. This helped better interpretation of the results so analyzed in terms of agriculture or water management. It appears this is lacking in IPCC studies and counter positive and negative trends giving false notions or predictions.

    Other important issue is, IPCC talks of probability. Probabilities relevance with data but not number of people accepted it. This is bad science. In science the phrase 70% probable or 90% probable had definite meanings. They imply controlled trials, they imply numerical quantitative information objectively assessed. If you ask the IPCC they will tell you that when they use the term 95% probable it is based on the expert opinion of a group of people gathered around a table. It is completely wrong to use probability terminology to describe what is albeit an expert opinion.

    The global yearly temperature pattern presents a 60 year cycle — sine curve with 30 years above the average and 30 years below the average — varying between -0.3 to +0.3 degrees Celsius superposed on a linear fit. However, year to year variations, known as irregular variations are common. Anybody can try this. Nothing is secret here. Look at WMO (1966) Manual “Climate Change”. You can take the published temperature data. The linear part consists of several components that are influencing globally. Here you get good probability unlike IPCCs probability based on number of persons agreed. We must not forget the fact that when we talk of precipitation, we must first demarcate homogeneous zones in region based on individual rain gauge stations data. In a homogeneous zone the rainfall presents similar patterns. If we mix non-homogeneous zones and take the average, the average patterns do not reflect the realistic pattern and mislead the interpretation and the consequent impacts. Take for example: Durban in South Africa, Mahalapye in Botswana & Catuane in Mozambique — all the three present W followed by M pattern of 66, 60 & 54 year cycles. When we add these three get meaningless result for agriculture purposes. I did homogenization studies for few countries including Brazil.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

  • andrew king

    this is the best thing ever l

  • Nate Sandvig

    This article is very one sided. I’d much rather get my power from a clean hydropower than an existing coal plant or new gas plants. There are many benefits of building dams that are not discussed in this article that should be explored. One of them is integrating/storing intermittent sources of clean energy such wind and solar.

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