The Life and Death of American Dams

Many of the nation’s largest dam projects are reaching the end of their useful lives, helped along by nature.

1 minute read

November 1, 2023, 7:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


View of Glen Canyon Dam with vertical red stone cliffs on either side, Colorado River at bottom, and dusk sky in background.

Writer Edward Abbey lamented the construction of Glen Canyon Dam in his seminal book, Desert Solitaire. | Chris / Adobe Stock

In an opinion column in Governing, Richard Parker outlines the state of the nation’s dams, many of which have been producing hydroelectric power and storing water for over a hundred years.

As Parker explains, “Once the height of engineering marvels, the great dams of the early 20th century have outlasted their questionable usefulness.” Many dams are now poorly maintained, clogged with silt, and pose an increasingly high risk of catastrophic failure.

Now, many of these dams are being removed “after declining in their power output and providing unpredictable sources of water — not to mention their massive environmental damage to fish, Native American cultures and the land itself.”

Parker describes the history of dams in the American West and their key role in the development of population centers in the arid Southwest, as well as the convergence of factors that makes their utility more and more limited. For Parker, the recent recognition of the damage dams cause and the movement to remove them is “part of the rewilding of America, long overdue.”

Tuesday, October 31, 2023 in Governing

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