Filming the Case for Dam Removal

A new documentary called DamNation attempts to make a watertight case for dam removal. Opens May 9 at Hollywood Theatre.

Photography by Greg Young April 24, 2014

Why tear down dams? For people who grew up with the idea that dams provide cheap, clean energy, the answer may not be immediately obvious. Enter the documentary DamNation.

“A couple decades ago it was radical in terms of thinking you could take a dam out, it was unthinkable,” said David Montgomery, a University of Washington geomorphology professor who was featured in the film. “Go back 50 years, it was legitimately crazy talk. The conversation’s changed.”

Using stunning cinematography and uplifting music, the film focuses on Oregon's Bonneville Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, and Lower Snake River dam, exploring how dam-removal has gone from a radical idea to a serious, mainstream movement.

Hollywood Theatre
Starting May 9

The film focuses largely on the negative ecological impacts of dams, particularly in wild-fish rivers, which are cut off from natural spawning grounds. To get fish to reproduce, workers must load boats with fish eggs to transport them back to their spawning location. A recurring image used in the film is of wild salmon jumping up at the base of a dam trying to return upstream. Removing the obstructions and transferring the energy load to wind turbines, the filmmakers conclude, would be far less harmful to the environment.

DamNation was first shown at South by Southwest (SXSW), but premiered at Hollywood Theatre to a sold-out audience of about 384 people, and included the attendance of various environmentalist groups: America Rivers, Pacific River Counsel, American White River, and many others. Frequently the crowed stood and cheered at the film, generating so much energy and excitement that one could swear they were at a soccer match.

“We’re thrilled to be here in Portland,” said Matt Stoecker, talking about the energy and enthusiasm for the film. “SXSW was silent.”

A weeklong showing will begin at the Hollywood theatre on May 9.  For more information, visit

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