When I first read Encounters with the Archdruid as an undergraduate doing summer field biology work in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, I couldn’t begin to fathom how Floyd Dominy and his generation thought that the best thing to do with a river was to dam it. I was young, for one thing, but I was also living in a very watery landscape — travelling by canoe from lake to lake, often camping in weather like we’re having today in Montana — 45 degrees and rain. Drought wasn’t something I understood growing up in the Midwest.
One year when I flew home to Chicago, I realized I’d become a real Westerner when I looked out the window and was astonished that there was still water in the rivers. Then I remembered that in the midwest, rivers don’t disappear in the late summer. Rivers and lakes, while they might flood a little in the spring, pretty much remain stable all year round.
And while I still feel that the Glen Canyon Dam is a blight upon the earth, a sin against nature, after twenty years in the west, after twenty years in an area where seasonal drought is the norm, I have a different understanding of the issue. I have to admit, as I stood on the bank at the dog park this morning watching all that water go by, water that we could really use later in the summer when it hasn’t rained in weeks and when everything gets crunchy, for the first time, I could see how that generation thought dams were a good idea. They were a practical bunch. They’d seen science and industry change things for the better — the introduction of antibiotics must have been miraculous in a world where children regularly died from infections.
I wouldn’t ever want to dam the Yellowstone. I love that it is the longest undammed river in the lower 48. And I love the spring flood — while most of the big trees went past days ago (there’s a sight — enormous dead cottonwoods flying downstream), there is still an enormous volume of water flowing past. The river’s been bumping up against the flood level of 8.5 feet all week. All I’m saying is that I can see why dams seemed like a good idea at the time to a lot of people trying to scratch a living from a very dry part of the country.