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Trump Doesn’t Know A Damn Thing About Dams

Donald Trump finally opened his mouth about dams and hydropower last week. The result is as bad as you can imagine.

Daniel Dale, Washington correspondent for the Toronto Star, tweeted what Trump had to say:

"Hydropower is great, great, form of power—we don't even talk about it, because to get the environmental permits are virtually impossible. It's one of the best things you can do—hydro. But we don't talk about it anymore."

But, once again, Trump is dead wrong.

Here are the problems with hydropower worldwide:

Trump's statement that "we don't talk about it anymore" is ridiculous. In fact, there are hundreds of massive hydropower dams under construction across the globe, and thousands being planned.

Clearly, Trump doesn't know a damn thing about dams.

Gary Wockner, PhD, directs river-protection organizations and is the author of River Warrior: Fighting to Protect the World's Rivers. Contact: Gary@Garywockner.com or @GaryWockner

EPA

​Oroville Dam: A Wake-Up Call for America

The utterly avoidable, terrifying and still potentially catastrophic failures of the spillways of North America's highest dam—California's 170 foot, earth-filled Oroville—could, with the right national leadership, awaken America to the urgency of investing in our physical safety and future—our infrastructure.

Sixty years old, Oroville single handedly provides one-third of the water for all of Southern California. It is on the verge of failure, because an under designed emergency spillway began to erode away the face of the dam when used for the first time. Three counties and 220,00 people have been evacuated; much of California's agriculture faces parched fields after one of the heaviest rainfall years on record. The state's water establishment refused to armor the emergency channel with concrete because "it was too expensive"—perhaps $10-20 million. They justified their recklessness by assuming that if the emergency spillway was needed, the emergency in question would be mild, timid and well-behaved. The main function of the dirt spillway was to provide a false sense of security to the public. No one knew if it would really work or much cared. Experts blithely asserted it would never be needed. Now we know. It was and it doesn't.

America's bridges, dams, highways, mass transit systems, drinking water supplies, sewers, levees, ports and other vital public support systems face similar challenges and pose similar risks. Of 84,000 major dams in the U.S., 14,000 are rated as being "high-hazard" if they fail. The foundations of our economy and our communities are eroding beneath us just like the muddy face of the Oroville Dam.

The agencies and regulators charged with ensuring that our physical infrastructure works often shill for shoddiness and short-cuts. Often maligned environmental "obstructionists" are the frequently outshouted defenders of doing it right.

Oroville Dam was only approved by the voters of California after a devastating Feather River flood swept through Oroville in 1955; it was sold as a public safety measure. The real driver was the desire of development interests in arid Southern California to tap the rivers of the wetter north. Even presented as flood protection, the dam barely received voter approval. To keep costs down, the emergency spillway, designed to handle overflow waters from the severe rainfall events, wasn't clad in concrete, except at the very lip. It was known and accepted, that surging waters over-topping the spillway would rapidly erode the earthen dam below that lip. In bureaucratese, the safety rules conceded that the spillway would fail if used: "The guidelines specify that during a rare flood event, it is acceptable for the emergency spillway to sustain significant damage."

In 2005, Oroville came up for safety review by the Federal government. The Sierra Club, which I then headed, joined Friends of the River in urging that the emergency spillway be clad in concrete. The groups argued, using common sense, that "in the event of extreme rain and flooding, fast-rising water would overwhelm the main concrete spillway, then flow down the emergency spillway and that could cause heavy erosion that would create flooding for communities downstream, but also could cause a failure, known as 'loss of crest control.'"

The very water agencies whose constituents—farmers, businesses and families—depended on reliable delivery of water from Oroville, lobbied strongly against having to provide the "tens of millions" of dollars that strengthening the spillway would have required. They pinched pennies even though they knew that the dam was highly vulnerable. (On Christmas, 1964, while the dam was under construction, it had been almost over-topped by a series of heavy rainfalls—the Feather River had given fair warning of its capriciousness and power).

Regulators, imbued with the George W. Bush administration's hostility to a federal role in public safety, were not impressed. (Remember Katrina. The fuse on Oroville was just longer). They rejected the environmental petition. The "emergency" spillway remained unsheathed, a soft-underbelly at the Earth-filled core of the heart of the nation's tallest dam.

Now the Feather has shown its strength again. The scariest thing is that once the main spillway failed the emergency spillway began eating out the dam while it was carrying less than 5 percent of its 350,000 cubic feet per second design rating. This strongly suggests that many, perhaps most, of America's dams, are reliant on engineering assumptions which will not withstand the test of extreme weather unleashed by climate change.

What's next? Water managers will continue dumping as much water—only a few months ago, as precious as gold, still likely to be needed next summer—as they can, through the damaged but partially functional main spillway. Their goal is to drain Oroville sufficiently that the heavy rains expected in a few days and later in the season will not again reach the emergency spillway and risk spillway failure and a virtually instantaneous release of 10 billion gallons, the top 30 feet of stored water behind the dam.

Now that water levels are down, authorities have allowed normal life to resume in ghost towns like Oroville, Yuba City and Marysville, the very communities whose security was the public justification for building the dam in the first place. Water managers will still need to keep the dam far below its normal storage level until the water season ends, because they cannot use the main spillway at its full design capacity, until it is repaired. This means that next summer farmers and cities will fall far short of the water Oroville could have delivered if operated normally. A loss of a full third of the region's water supply is a frightening possibility if repairs of Oroville require shutting it down this summer.

Will the lessons of this 60-year folly be learned? California might realize that it needs to invest in water delivery and flood control systems better prepared for the extreme weather and diminished snow pack to come. Or this disaster could be used to argue for ever more elaborate, fragile and vulnerable water diversion projects like the proposed tunnels in the Delta, larded up with fatter public subsidies to the very water users who refused to properly repair Oroville's spillways in 2005.

President Trump's campaign promises suggest that he should use Oroville to light a fire under Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, who breezily dismiss every warning from the nation's civil engineers as a call for "a trillion dollar stimulus project." The White House did cite the emergency as evidence of the need for a major investment in infrastructure, saying, "The situation is a textbook example of why we need to pursue a major infrastructure package in Congress."

But Trump's recent behavior suggests that he's not willing to do the heavy lifting of moving the Tea Party wing of the Republican party out of his way. It's going to take the rest of us—businesses and mayors, governors and community leaders, to fire up the Democrats in—and the president—to commit that by the end of the next eight years, America's dams—and the rest of its infrastructure—are fit for service in the 21st century.

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People Power Wins Again!

By Ossie Michelin

In the early hours of Oct. 27 it felt like we changed the world—and we did. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador had announced they will meet my friends' requests for environmental and human health protections on the Lower Churchill Hydroelectric project. The hunger strike was over after 13 days and my friends could eat again! One of the happiest moments of my life was watching Billy Gauthier, Delilah Saunders and Jerry Kohlmeister devour an Arctic Char after several long days of ups and downs.

Over the previous two weeks hundreds of Labradorians came out to demonstrate, blockading and eventually occupying the dam site. My friends and I had flown to Ottawa to speak with the Canadian government and national media. In the provincial capital of St. John's hundreds rallied every day to "make Muskrat right."

Dr. Trevor Bell from the Department of Geography at Memorial University read to us over the phone the deal reached between the provincial government and Labrador's three indigenous leaders. This agreement would ensure that before any flooding would happen extensive research identifying and leading to the removal of mercury dense organic matter must occur first.

The province had agreed that if any initial flooding had to happen to protect the dam from winter ice, not only would Nalcor have to prove the flooding was completely necessary but that the initial flooding would be kept to a bare minimum for the shortest duration possible. If there was another option, it would have to be taken. Independent research using peer reviewed science and Indigenous knowledge would determine which areas were the most dangerous to human health and therefore excavated. All of this would be monitored and regulated by the federal government, the province, municipalities, the three Labrador Indigenous groups and independent scientists.

As Dr. Bell read this to us we cried, we shouted and we hugged each other. Not only had our friends survived their hunger strike and protected our home from a large wave of unmitigated methylmercury contamination, but this agreement would enact some of the strongest environmental protections around hydroelectric damming on the planet. The research that will happen in the flood basin of the Muskrat Falls project will help inform all future damming projects going forward on how to protect against deadly methylmercury.

The next morning the dozens of land defenders occupying the Muskrat Falls work site had announced they were satisfied with the terms of the agreement and left the camp to be greeted by the cheers of hundreds of Labradorians who had come out to celebrate their heroes.

With that Labradorians could begin to heal from one of the most trying periods in their history. We felt like we had won—but it was just the beginning.

Now that the promises have been made, it is up to us to make sure everyone will come through on what they said:

1. We must ensure that the province enacts legislation to guarantee the safety of this project. We must hold all levels of government accountable, and make sure that all research from here on out is independent and transparent, with the best practices enforced.

2. We need to learn from and enforce the findings of the groundbreaking research on methylmercury contamination happening in the flood basin. Not only will this protect our home, but it will help to inform others looking to protect their homes from hydroelectric damming.

3. We need to support independent journalism, like The Independent who chronicled every action on the ground since the beginning, even risking jail time in their duty to represent the Labradorian perspective. Their work kept leadership accountable and provided a human face on the issue.

4. Ordinary Labradorians must continue to step up to make sure that their representatives on the provincial, federal and Indigenous levels know that they are watching and that nothing but the best is acceptable.

Billy Gauthier and his mother Mitzi Wall find out that the provincial government had met all four of their requests and the hunger strike is over after 13 long days.Ossie Michelin

Together, our little corner of the world stood up to corporate interests and our own government and changed how the hydroelectric industry functions. We won with love in our hearts for our culture, communities, land and waters. We showed the world just how hard we can fight and more importantly we showed that to ourselves.

Billy, Jerry and Delilah are home in Labrador now and eating once more. It is a time to rest and celebrate, Labradorians fought hard for their water and won. However, this victory does not mean we can become idle, because now that we have the agreements with regulators, the work has just begun.

7 Wild Rivers Under Attack by Hydropower Dams

By Gary Wockner and Lydia Bleifuss

Hydropower, falsely sold to the public as a source of "green" or "clean" energy, is expanding at an alarming rate in many of South America's beautiful and ecologically pristine rivers.

In line with a global trend, many South American governments—backed by multi-national hydropower corporations, international financiers and profit-motivated corruption—continue to endorse hydropower developments as "renewable" sources of energy despite public opposition and dramatic negative environmental impacts.

Hydropower destroys rivers, often forces the relocation of local communities, increases the spread of vector-borne diseases, and disrupts local cultures and ecologies that have evolved together for thousands of years. Perhaps even worse, methane emissions from hydropower reservoirs are making climate change worse.

Here are seven incredible rivers flowing through South America that are currently threatened:

1. The Beni River

Beni River, Bolivia.Havelock13 / Deviant Art

The Beni River in Bolivia is a tributary to the Madre de Dios which flows into the Amazon. The Beni is threatened by the proposed Bala Hydropower Plant, which would be constructed in the Bala Gorge. The reservoir would flood up to 2,000 square kilometers, including a great portion of the Madidi National Park, jeopardizing tropical forests and biodiversity. Like many hydro developments in South America, the Bala's electricity production estimations are based off of limited hydrological data and accuracy is unreliable.

2. The Jondachi River

Jondachi River, Ecuador.Abraham Herrera

The Jondachi River in Ecuador is a tributary of the Napo Basin which flows into the Amazon. The "La Merced de Jondachi" hydroelectric project would divert the majority of the river's water, which provides world renowned whitewater paddling. Although Ecuador seeks energy independence, development of the Jondachi has been met with fervent resistance from organizations like Ecuadorian Rivers Institute. The massive hydroelectric dam would cause a dramatic decline in the local eco-tourism industry, in addition to ecological degradation, both of which contradict the developer's "clean" and "sustainable" energy platform.

3. The Maipo River

Maipo River, Chile.Paulo Urrutia

The Maipo River in Chile, a whitewater destination and also Santiago's main source of drinking water, is threatened by an internationally financed hydropower tunneling system that is siphoning away the majority of the water of its tributaries—the Volcán, Yeso and Colorado rivers. The hydropower project has met sustained local opposition because it would cause drastic ecological shifts in the valley and has already caused groundwater contamination due to tunnel construction. The proposed electricity production is compromised by drought in the region and isn't reliable. Further, the electricity would be largely funneled to the private mining industry or exported to Argentina for profit.

4. The Marañón River

Maranon River, Peru.Gary Wockner

The Marañón River in Peru is the Amazon River's largest tributary. On the grounds of "national interest," the construction of approximately twenty internationally financed dams have been proposed. Four projects are currently in the permitting process, although none have begun construction. The projects—which would devastate the river's ecological health, fragment nutrient flow and flood local communities—are meeting increasing local, national and international opposition.

5. The Ñuble River

Ñuble River, Chile.Paulo Urrutia

The Ñuble River of Chile runs through the Bío Bío Region and is currently slated for two hydropower projects. While the Chilean government claims the electricity is needed for public use, private mining corporations appear to be the biggest supporters of the projects. Beyond the The Ñuble's amazing scenery and sections of class III/IV whitewater opportunities are jeopardized, as are local farms that would be drowned. While some nearby agricultural communities once recognized the benefits of increased irrigation access the reservoir would provide, the realities of human relocation and an overwhelming focus upon energy production have generated increasing resistance to the developments.

6. The Quijos River

Quijos River, Ecuador.Abraham Herrera

The Quijos River in Ecuador is a tributary of the larger Napo Basin. While one dam already exists on this river (named "Coca Codo Sinclair HPP"), several others are proposed that would slice this once wild and pristine river into an eviscerated tunnel and reservoir plumbing system. The government of Ecuador is endorsing these nationally and internationally financed projects, claiming they will provide "clean" and "sustainable" hydropower, while disregarding the unavoidable environmental degradation and negative social implications that have already started to take hold.

7. The Rocín River

Rocín River, Chile.

The Rocín River in Chile flows from the Andes in the Valparaiso Region. Northern Chile holds some of the largest copper deposits and thus mines, in South America. The privately funded and legally approved hydropower project planned for this river would provide electricity to those mines, which are also held by private companies. Due to the remoteness of the Rocín, relatively little attention has been focused on the development despite local community concerns regarding water access for agriculture and also contamination of both surface and groundwater from mining activities.

Almost all of these seven proposed hydropower projects in South America are being pushed forward to create electricity to be sent to private mining corporations or exported to nearby countries for profit. In most cases, the negative human and environmental consequences are being glossed over, and the "Environmental Impact Assessments" required by governments lack scientific rigor and integrity. Government corruption may also be playing a role as hydroelectric companies are rarely held accountable in permitting processes nor are they required to strictly follow national environmental laws.

Most projects are marketed to the public as "green" energy. In South America's tropical Amazon Basin, for example, methane emitting hydropower reservoirs have been measured to be bigger greenhouse gas polluters than coal-fired power plants of equivalent electricity production. International financial institutions and hydroelectric corporations that fund these projects are distanced from the problems they create, while they continue to push hydro development forward under the guise of "clean" energy mandates that resulted from COP21, the 2016 Paris climate agreement.

Layers of different preservation strategies are needed to guarantee any river's safety in South America, and fortunately there are groups who are working on creating and maintaining them. However, these river-protection movements are often isolated from each other and lack funding to help connect and promote their effectiveness. The seven cases above are but a sliver of the threats to South America's—as well as the world's—magnificent rivers. These threats are constantly expanding and shifting, and demand an urgent global response.

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It's Official: Hydropower Is Dirty Energy

Over the last two years, I've written four articles about the massive problem with methane emissions from hydropower dams and reservoirs. Finally, the mainstream media covered this story Thursday after an international team of scientists released a new study that synthesizes more than 100 scholarly articles on the topic.

The Seattle Times headline read, "Hydropower Isn't Carbon Neutral After All" and the Washington Post headline read, "Oh Great—Scientists Have Confirmed A Key New Source Of Greenhouse Gases"

The scientific study featured in these news articles will appear next week in the journal Bioscience and is co-authored by 10 international researchers including scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As reported in the Seattle Times and Washington Post, key findings in the scientific study include:

  • Methane emissions from dams and reservoirs across the planet, including hydropower, are estimated to be significantly larger than previously thought, approximately equal to 1 gigaton per year.
  • The international boom in the construction of hydropower projects is rapidly accelerating this increase in methane emissions.
  • Reservoirs in mid-latitude areas of the planet, including in the U.S., can have as high of methane emissions as those in tropical countries which have been measured to emit as much greenhouse gases as coal-fired power plants.
  • The United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) should now better account for these massive methane emissions and include them in climate change scenarios.

In the four articles I wrote:

  1. Why Hydropower Is Not Clean Or Cheap
  2. Hydropower Will Undermine COP21 As False Solution To Climate Change
  3. The Hydropower Methane Bomb No One Wants To Talk About
  4. Dams Cause Climate Change, They Are Not Clean Energy

I laid out the science behind why dams and reservoirs cause methane emissions. I explained how there are hundreds of dams under construction right now and thousands in the planning process, and I described how the U.S. government and the IPCC need to address this issue because countries around the world are sweeping it under the rug.

Now I'm taking it a step farther. I'm calling for a global moratorium on the construction and permitting of all hydropower projects.

Hydropower is being pushed forward as "clean" and "carbon free" by an industry that is making hundreds of billions of dollars per year building dams. Countries, including the U.S., are in denial about how hydropower is contributing to climate change. Corruption in developing countries is undermining democracy and endangering the lives of local people who are fighting these projects. The murder of dam-fighter Berta Cáceres in Honduras got widespread international attention, but it is only the tip of the iceberg for the human rights abuses faced by local people fighting hydropower across the planet.

A moratorium on hydropower is the only just path forward.

Free the Snake River, Remove the Dams

Buck Ryan, the Snake River Waterkeeper, put it this way, "Removing hydroelectric dams is progress—we no longer have to destroy rivers and kill endangered fish to keep the lights on."

As I paddled my kayak amidst the hundreds of people in the Free The Snake flotilla last weekend, I believe Ryan is on the right track. Dams are a 50 to 100 year old technology—it's time to remove even more dams along America's diminished waterways and replace that aged technology with flourishing solar and wind energy systems.

2016 was the second year for the Free The Snake flotilla. Co-sponsored by more than a dozen non-profit groups and organized by Save Our Wild Salmon and Patagonia, the flotilla took place on the Idaho border on the Snake River. Four huge dams on the lower Snake River have contributed to several species of salmon being placed on the endangered species list. Removing the dams would help restore the salmon and a way of life in the Snake and Columbia River basins.

The flotilla included participation from river conservation and fishing groups, native American tribes and local businesses, all who have a stake in seeing the lower Snake River dams removed. Since the dams were built more than 30 years ago, only about 1 percent of salmon return from the sea to their native spawning grounds along the river. Historically, around 8 million salmon would return from the sea, swim up the Columbia River and then up into the Snake. That number is now down to around 80,000. Further, the vast majority of those fish are bred and stocked every year, with few or none being original wild salmon.

"Bigger and better, this year's flotilla underscores the public support for restoring this river and bringing these critical salmon species back to our environment," Joseph Boggard, director of Save Our Salmon, said.

The 300-person flotilla had the wind at its back, literally and figuratively, as it floated down the river towards the Clarkston-Lewiston bridge. In May of 2016, a federal district court judge ruled that the Endangered Species Recovery Program for the salmon was "illegal" and needed to "consider all recovery options" including "dam removal." Save Our Salmon has been litigating on the behalf of the endangered salmon for nearly two decades and is thrilled at the court's decision.

A new recovery plan must be developed by the federal agencies. Conservation groups have vowed to crank up the "dam removal" campaign. Further, the Snake River Waterkeeper recently filed another notice of intent to sue to address the pollution and temperature problems in the river.

"We've opened up another legal front in our fight to protect the salmon and take down these dams," said Ryan.

The crowd chanted and drummed as it floated down the river. Leading the flotilla was a giant inflatable killer whale to symbolize the threat to ocean species from the massive decrease in salmon populations. In fact, the Southern Resident Killer Whales—which live part-time in Puget Sound—are endangered because their food supply has been depleted. This species of killer whale lives entirely by eating fish and migrating along the coast down to northern California and back up to Puget Sound. Historically, this population of killer whales almost exclusively ate salmon, but as the salmon numbers dwindled, killer whale numbers have dramatically decreased as well, down to 82 animals, which has put them on the endangered species list.

"With all the negativity that surrounds trying to save an endangered species, everyone that took part in the Snake River flotilla sent a strong message today that is proof positive that we can right this ship," said Shari Tarantino, director of the Orca Conservancy, which is trying to restore the Southern Resident Killer Whales.

Some of the tribal members at the Free The Snake Flotilla had just returned from the Dakota Access Pipeline flotilla and were excited to keep their boats in the water supporting the cause of justice and environmental restoration. The rainy day deterred no one's enthusiasm, including the five different tribes that participated in the event.

In addition to sending a message to the Army Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration which now must write a new recovery plan for the salmon, the flotilla also sent a strong message to the local communities that removing the dams would be good for the river and the economy.

"It's great to have hundreds of boaters on the water showing Clarkston and Lewiston that the public supports dam removal," said Samantha Mace of Save Our Salmon.

As the 3-hour even wound down, the chanting and drumming increased and I came to believe that it's not if, but a matter of when, the Snake River dams come down.

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20 Year David and Goliath Fist Fight Saves Patagonia's Futaleufu

A History of Democracy and Free-Flowing Rivers

Chilean environmentalists and global whitewater aficionados are celebrating the happy ending to the tumultuous 20-year battle to save Patagonia's Futaleufu River. On Aug. 30, Endesa Chile, subsidiary of Enersis and part of Italian-controlled energy consortium Enel, formally relinquished all claims to Chile's iconic whitewater mecca, and similar stakes in other Chilean rivers.


Endesa sought to build two dams on the Futaleufu that would capture its water for energy generation while inundating the river's spectacular landscapes—the 800-megawatt La Cuesta facility nine miles from the village of Puerto Ramirez and the 400-megawatt Los Coihues dam across Inferno Canyon at the gateway to the river's prime whitewater.

The picturesque farming communities above that dam would have drowned beneath 75 feet of water; mountainous rapids below the dam would survive only in the memories of those lucky enough to have experienced the unbridled river. The Spanish company hoped to sell the power from these installations to Argentina, or otherwise up north through Chile using a massive transmission line that was never built.

In a statement to the Chilean government, Endesa tabulated the factors behind its decision as:

  1. "the high annual cost for the company to maintain water rights without using them"
  2. the technical and economic difficulties facing the damming project
  3. and, most notably, the lack of "sufficient support from local communities"

Fierce local opposition caused Endesa, two years ago, to suspend immediate plans to dam the Futaleufu, which has one dam near its headwaters in Argentina but flows free for 65 miles through Chile. Trapped between unyielding popular resistance and the escalating costs of its water rights, Endesa abandoned the project altogether. Endesa said its decision represents a $52-million haircut for its shareholders.

"This is an extraordinary triumph for Patagonia," said Patrick Lynch, staff attorney and international director at Futaleufu Riverkeeper. "The victory belongs to a half dozen activist groups composed of local farmers, river guides, fishermen and outfitters, and to the thousands of river lovers around the world and the international environmental groups who supported the community fighting the dam."

Reflecting on the long battle, Lynch told me, "It was always such an unlikely coalition. And yet this community won a bruising 20 year David and Goliath fist fight. We beat back an all-powerful international utility company that owned this river for more than 20 years. Now we need legal reforms to put an end to a corrupt system that still reward damming rivers for profit."

The Futaleufu played a symbolic role in Chile's struggles to restore her democracy, still reeling from two decades of dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet. "Pinochet's regime was old school European corporatism," the Chilean environmental and human rights activist, Juan Pablo Orrego, explained to me in 1993 soon after Pinochet left power. "He followed Mussolini's scheme to merge state and corporate power and that meant handing Chile's publicly owned natural resources—including our rivers—over to private corporations."

Every tyranny includes efforts by powerful interests to privatize the public commons, but Pinochet's regime turned the ideology of privatization into a religion. In what is now regarded as a cataclysmically failed social experiment in voodoo economics, Pinochet turned Chile over to a group of right wing theoretical economists from the University of Chicago, entrusting them with authoritarian control over virtually every aspect of economic life in Chile.

These acolytes of "free market" guru Milton Friedman, the so called "Chicago Boys," used their unlimited power to impose a barbaric austerity on Chile's poor and middle classes. They slashed taxes on the rich and corporations, discarded vital subsidies for fuel, school milk and other food staples, eviscerated labor unions, cut education and healthcare, and repealed environmental, financial and trade regulations. In an orgy of privatization, they auctioned off Chile's public assets—including her roads, airports, airlines, telephone and electric utilities, her waterways and forests to multinational corporations at fire sale prices. "They literally liquidated our commonwealth for cash," Orrego observed. "They obliterated Chile's public spaces." Pinochet's henchmen gave away every Chilean river to private companies for damming.

These anti-democratic reforms were naturally unpopular with many Chileans, and Pinochet jailed, tortured and killed his program's critics, murdering 3,000 dissenters, imprisoning 20,000 and forcing another 200,000 into exile.

My family has had a long history of friendship with Chile. In the early 1960s, Chile's leftist democratic president, Eduardo Frei Montalva, became the closest Latin American ally of my uncle, President John Kennedy. Frei helped craft the blueprint for JFK's Alliance for Progress. Both men hoped the "Alianza" would break the strangle hold of Latin America's oligarchies who presided over feudal economies characterized by vast gulfs between rich and poor.

The oligarchs protected their wealth and privilege through seamless relationships with the military caudillos who ruled their nations with brutal dictatorship. That ruling coalition fortified itself in symbiotic relationships with all-powerful U.S. multinationals like Anaconda Copper, United Fruit, IT&T and Standard Oil, to whom the local oligarchs ceded their nations' natural resources in exchange for a share of the profits. These colonial style arrangements gave the oligarchs unimaginable wealth and power, kept their people in desperate poverty and gave rise to a new derisive sobriquet for these countries, the "Banana Republic."

Prior to JFK, U.S. foreign policy was to nurture these powerful oligarchies which unctuously served the mercantile interests of American corporations. But these policies, for JFK, represented a stark departure from American values—including our national anti-colonial heritage—and caused appalling injustice and poverty that was easily exploited by communist revolutionaries. Frei and Kennedy designed the alliance as a suite of reforms to rebuild Latin America as a collection of just, democratic, middle class societies. Chile, the continent's beacon of middle class stability, democracy and freedom would be the template.

My father's first public break with President Lyndon Johnson following JFK's assassination was over Johnson's subversion of the alliance. My father believed that the new U.S. president had abandoned the alliance's idealistic goals and returned U.S. policy to its historical role of supporting the oligarchs and fostering corporate colonialism.

In 1964, my father infuriated Johnson by visiting Chile and advising its intellectuals and government officials to nationalize the U.S. oil and mining interests that were robbing the nation's natural wealth. My father engaged in a heated debate with communist students at the University of Concepcion who showered him with spit, eggs and other missiles. He then made a harrowing trip headfirst into the depths of an Atacama copper mine on a tiny sled to meet with beleaguered miners. He returned to the surface to chastise the dismayed mine owner for mistreating his workers.

Just after dawn on the morning of June 29, 1973, I found myself with four others, including New York Times reporter Blake Fleetwood, on a remote Andean ridge near Chile's frontier with Argentina earnestly digging in the deep snow to escape a hail of gunfire from half a dozen carabineros crouched in the valley 100 meters below us. The squadron had pursued us from the nearby military base as we climbed on sealskins for a day of backcountry skiing. Believing we were trying to escape across the border, they soon captured and detained us. The nation was on high alert. Unbeknownst to us, a tank battalion, that morning, had launched a coup against the regime of Chile's socialist president, Salvador Allende.

I had traveled to Chile for the Atlantic Monthly to write about the Nixon administration's efforts to destroy Chile's economy—"Make the economy scream," he had ordered the CIA in 1970—and to overthrow Allende, the duly elected president of Latin America's oldest and most stable democracy. (Our nation would later learn that Nixon had accepted a hefty bribe from IT&T, which feared Allende's plans to naturalize their company).

Colonel Roberto Souper's so called "Tank Coup" quickly failed, but three months later, on Sept. 11, Salvador Allende died in a firefight as General Pinochet's troops invaded the presidential palace. The following year at a Senate Refugee Committee hearing chaired by my uncle, Senator Edward Kennedy, junta representatives warned me never to return to Chile. From the moment Allende died, Teddy had been scrambling to rescue Chilean descendants from Pinochet's murderous wrath. Chile's Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz, former United Nations ambassador, told me that he owes his life to Teddy's timely intervention. Teddy's 1974 bill, the so called "Kennedy Amendment," froze U.S. arm sales to the junta. When Teddy tried to visit Chile in 1986, Pinochet arranged violent riots to muzzle him and drive him from the country.

Working with Chile's democratic resistance, Teddy authored and passed legislation conditioning U.S. aid to Chile on a national referendum in which the Chilean people would be allowed to vote "si" or "no" on Pinochet's continued rule. Chile was desperate for that U.S. aid package; by then, the Chicago Boys' "reforms" had wrecked the Chilean economy and dismantled the finest health and education systems on the continent.

Chile's industrial base was in ruins; unemployment had risen tenfold. Chile was suffering from 375 percent inflation and a runaway national debt. Chile's resounding "No" vote in the plebiscite finally drove Pinochet from power. In 1990, Teddy returned to a hero's welcome in Chile to attend the inauguration of Pinochet's democratically elected successor, President Patricio Aylwin.

Environmentally-themed campaign poster urging a vote against Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite forced upon the Chile's junta by Senator Ted Kennedy's legislation.

My entire family was beyond proud when in September 2008, Chile's first woman president, Michelle Bachelet came to our home in Hyannis Port to award Teddy Chile's highest civilian honor, the "Order of Merit" for his long support for democracy in Chile. Bachelet and her mother were among the Chileans Pinochet had tortured and jailed. Bachelet's father, an air force officer, was tortured to death in prison.

Even after he relinquished power, Pinochet's legal legacy continued causing mischief against the nation's people and their right to water. Pinochet had embedded the privatization of all Chile's water flows into key parts of the nation's Constitution and Water Code. To make sure that free-flowing rivers can never remain in public hands, the framework provides that ownership of Chile's water rights no longer belong to the public. Instead they belong to the first corporation to claim them. The law was finally revised in 2005 to punish corporate owners with escalating fees for not using the rights, but they can get the fees back once they propose and begin construction of a dam. These fees escalate over time, gradually topping millions of dollars per year for some rivers. The first battleground for challenging Pinochet's corporatist water regime was the fight to save the Biobio from dam builders in 1993.

The Biobio River was Chile's crown jewel. By the late 1980's it had already become Latin America's—and arguably, the World's—premier whitewater destination. Whitewater paddlers considered it the equivalent of the Colorado River, the world's gold standard of whitewater, for its breathtaking rapids and magical scenery. The Biobio plunged through a Grand Canyon scale gorge, but unlike the naked rock that frames the Colorado, the Biobio's lush climate had festooned its canyon walls with hanging gardens and watered them with five massive waterfalls that cascaded from the high plateau—all of this in the shadow of a smoking snow-capped volcano!

In 1993, following the collapse of the Pinochet Regime and the democratic election of Patricio Aylwin, I was among a small contingent of Natural Resources Defense Council attorneys who accompanied Mapuche Indian leaders and Chilean environmental activists on the largest expedition ever to run Chile's Biobio River. Juan Pablo Orrego, one of the founding fathers of the Chile's modern environmental movement, accompanied us as president of the grassroots Grupo de Accion por el Biobio.

Orrego observed to me, at that time, that while democracy had nominally returned to Chile, Pinochet had already given away virtually all the public assets that made democracy meaningful. The return of democracy, Orrego argued, was therefore illusory. Chile, he said, had reverted to a colonial model with its natural resources controlled by foreign corporations. Pinochet had given away Chile's entire commonwealth to private companies.

"We supposedly have democracy, but it is a democracy without teeth. A nation can't have a true democracy without sovereignty over its lands and infrastructures," Orrego told me.

The Biobio, once the diadem of Chile's patrimony, was now the wholly owned asset of private utility—Endesa. With the Chilean government's blessing and World Bank loans, Endesa planned a series of six dams on the river that would bury its stunning landscapes. Working with Orrego, the Mapuche-Pehuenches, NRDC and the Chilean Commission on Human Rights, our coalition launched an international campaign to save the Biobio. We attacked the critical flaws in Endesa's plans, including the fact that the dams were to be built in the middle of an earthquake fault at the base of two volcanoes. In meetings with World Bank officials, we pressured the institution to launch its own internal investigation. In the end, we managed to force Endesa to drop its proposals for all but a single dam—the Pangue. Many people saw this as a victory. I did not. The Pangue and its 1,250-acre reservoir in indigenous territory ruined the Biobio's viewshed and its best whitewater. Ten years later, Endesa succeeded in building one more dam on the Biobio, called Ralco, which displaced 97 Pehuenche families and even flooded a sacred graveyard. I have never been able to bring myself to return to that desecrated paradise.

In 1993, my friend Eric Hertz—a white-water outfitter, river conservationist and founder of Earth River Expeditions—told me he had found a river nearly the Biobio's equal. Hertz had spent a lifetime searching for the perfect river. He had finally discovered it 600 kilometers south of the Biobio, in Chilean Patagonia.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (left) and Dr. Mark Hyman (right) with Eric Hertz and Roberto Currie from Earth River Expeditions, 2003

Situated between snow-capped glaciers and rugged saw-tooth mountains reminiscent of the Tetons, the Fu flows through narrow canyons and verdant valleys, where river runners find an irresistible mix of wilderness and charming pastoral landscapes. Chattering ibis, spoonbills and plovers flock over grazing sheep as Patagonian gauchos, sporting sheepskin chaps trimmed with heavy fur, ride their criollo ponies or drive yoked oxen pulling wooden wagons along the banks. Stunning granite cliffs and outcroppings at the valley fringes frame a fairytale landscape of rustic farms, broken forests, orchards and alpine meadows.


Intrepid kayakers who had ventured into southern Chile the previous year said that violent rapids made the Futaleufu River unrunnable by raft. But Hertz and his partner at Earth River, the Chilean white-water expert Roberto Currie, made an expeditionary first decent in 1993 and figured out how to safely navigate what today is the most intensive stretch of commercially rafted whitewater rapids in the world. Ever since then, I try to make an annual trip to the Fu with my family and friends each March. Kayakers and rafters and fishermen flocking to the river soon transformed the tiny Alpine village of Futaleufu into a bustling river outfitter's haven.

Several elements combine to make the Fu an incomparable outdoor adventure: the breathtaking scenery, the series of more than 30 tightly packed and formidable Class IV and V rapids, the hospitable climate, the cultural charms of its farm community of vaqueros and homestead pioneers, the incomparable campsites and hiking trails, the absence of biting insects and the shocking teal color of the river's gin clear waters—a feature that nearly always prompts a double-take at first sight; when actress Julia Louis- Dreyfus caught her first glimpse of the Fu's show stopping blue-green luminescent, during a 2003 expedition, she gave an astonished laugh, "Did they dye it," she asked me, "like at Disneyland?"

The Fu is also a world class fishing destination. During my annual pilgrimages to the Fu, I customarily fish from the bow of my raft as I take in the scenery between the rapids. The small bays and pockets of still water along the Fu's banks and below each rapid almost always yield trout or large salmon that dart, voracious and aggressive, from hiding places under the branches of willows and osiers, and from beneath the Fu's granite walls. For mile after river mile on virtually every cast, whether with fly or spinning rods, an angler can watch brown trout follow a lure through the clear cyan water.

The Fu has a pebbled bottom, clean water, rich vegetation and an alkaline pH, conditions that are ideal for trout. Besides brown trout, coho, Atlantic salmon, chinook and other North American imports also frequent the Fu, growing upward of 60 pounds. I've fished in most of the states, including Alaska, and in most of the provinces of Canada, and in Latin America from Costa Rica to Tierra del Fuego. But I've rarely seen a waterway with consistently large salmonoids in such abundance. A local friend, Adrei Gallardo, took a 39.9-pound brown trout from the Fu on a handline—the Latin American record. Gallardo told me that he subsequently refused to relinquish the mount to representatives of Munich's Hunting & Fishing museum, despite a $20,000 offer—the equivalent of a two-year salary.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. with Adrei Gallardo's 39.9-pound brown trout from the Futaleufu caught using a handline—the Latin American record, 1995

Julia Louis-Dreyfus stands among a parade of international celebrities who have visited the Futaleufu over the past two decades to run its rapids and fight the dams—Dan Ackroyd, Donna Dixon, John McEnroe, Patti Smith, Glenn Close, Brad Hall, David Chokachi and Richard Dean Anderson, to name a few. They came to support the valley's voiceless vaqueros, shepherds, fishermen, kayak paddle guides, whitewater companies and landowners. For all of those who participated in this battle, Aug. 30 was a time of celebration.

Baywatch star David Chokachi with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and chinook.

But Lynch cautions against complacency. "We can't celebrate with our paddles in the air just yet," warned Lynch. "In Chile they call the forces that want to privatize those rivers zombies. These are zombie dams. Every time you think you've killed a project, it comes back from the dead.

"The era of big dams in Patagonia is not over yet. Endesa still has rights over the Baker and Pascua Rivers. And other companies still have permits to build dams on other wild and scenic rivers like the Cuervo."

And Lynch still worries about the Fu. General Augusto Pinochet died in 2006 under house arrest, awaiting trial for corruption, torture and murder, but in a very real sense Pinochet continues to rule Chile from the grave. Because of the reactionary water regime devised by the Chicago Boys, the water rights that Endesa relinquished will not long remain in public hands. Under Chile's Water Code, any hydroelectric company that wants to seize the river for damming may step into the vacuum left by Endesa and claim the Fu for itself. Lynch has a wary eye on the Chinese with their bottomless appetite for Latin America's natural resources.

"China is the world's leading dam builder," he said. "They would be the most likely international suitor."

Looking forward, Lynch said, "Our job is to help show international water speculators—called piratas here—that it's a risky business to try to build a dam in Chile. We need to let them know that the people have had enough. If they come here, they are going to have a Donnybrook on their hands."

Lynch understands that river conservation is as difficult as democracy. There are no permanent victories. The only thing we ever really win is the opportunity to keep fighting.

Building Dams in Patagonia Will Not Mitigate Climate Change

By Patrick J. Lynch

In the Patagonia region, climate change presents a direct threat to human health and the environment. More than 90 percent of Patagonia's glaciers are receding, endangered marine species are shifting migration ranges as the ocean warms and in some rural communities the water table has dropped so far below historical levels that water is now being trucked to people's doorsteps. These dwindling resources like glaciers and rivers need legislation to protect them and regulate uses that could accelerate their loss.

But perhaps the biggest threat to Patagonia's rivers comes under the cloak of climate change policy. This policy is designed to favor construction of large dams in the region under the guise of cutting carbon emissions. New studies question whether Chile has to accept dams as a solution to climate change, given that a study from Stanford University shows the country could achieve 100 percent renewables without building a single additional dam. But current policy is based on models developed before other renewables like wind or solar were competitive and under a legal regime that dates back to the 1980s, long before mitigating climate change was universally recognized as a priority. The consequence is that some of Patagonia's biggest rivers are still at risk, despite the dual role they play as effective tools in mitigating climate change and as economic drivers for the region.

From Paris to Patagonia

In late 2015, the world's leaders met in France and reached a global climate agreement known as the Paris agreement. As part of the agreement, 189 out of 196 governments made specific, measurable commitments to reduce carbon emissions. These voluntary commitments, labeled INDCs- Intended Nationally Determined Contributions- differ for each country; some are more ambitious than others. Chile's INDC is modeled on a carbon intensity target, which aims to reduce emissions per GDP unit 30 percent below 2007 levels by 2030 and shift energy production to renewable energies. The plan is rated "inadequate" by the researchers at Climate Action Tracker.

The problem for Patagonia is not that these emission cuts aren't ambitious enough, but rather that corresponding energy policy looks at large dams as if they are the right answer to climate change. In 2015, the Ministry of Energy concluded Chile could achieve 70 percent renewables by 2050, which will help meet the goal of 30 percent emissions reductions. While the ministry studied different scenarios, all of the models assumed large dams would be part of the mix. Most of these large dams would be located in the south, where powerful rivers rule supreme and could run turbines year-round—albeit less and less each year. One of the many consequences of climate change in Patagonia is a pronounced drop in precipitation, which must be factored into any discussions about proper water use and management.

The Futaleufu River.Jakub Sedivy

For many, more troubling than a policy that prioritizes large dams is a policy that is designed to give companies a roadmap for which watersheds should be dammed first. In 2014 the Ministry of Energy commissioned a watershed mapping study, currently in Phase II. The study assesses watersheds from the Maipo basin near the capital of Santiago to the Yelcho basin in Patagonia, home to the world-renowned Futaleufú River, which in the past has been targeted for hydro generation. This effort has triggered alarm in these communities, where local leaders are joining together to denounce both the study and the confusion generated by having a regional government that supports conservation and tourism and a national government that appears to prioritize dams.

This policy of mapping watersheds for energy generation predates what is referred to as the HydroAysen case. In 2014, this controversial dam project in the Aysen region of Chilean Patagonia had its permit invalidated. The invalidation came after years of campaigning, including research procured by the Council for the Defense of Patagonia, a coalition of Chilean organizations including international partners such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, debunking a myth that Chileans need to accept dams to keep the lights on. It also triggered a response from the private sector to seek government assurances for future dam projects, which resulted in the launch of the watershed mapping study that same year.

Prior to the HydroAysen case, it was logical for policymakers to assume as a foregone conclusion that large hydro would play a major role in Chile's future. For many years the question being asked in Chile wasn't whether its rivers would be dammed, but rather which ones would be first. In 2010, Chile's first minister of the then-new Ministry of Energy announced that hydroelectricity was the country's "main richness in terms of energy resources". Now that the conversation has changed and other renewable technologies are both cost-effective and competitive in the energy market, policymakers can be more ambitious in calling for the protection of Patagonia's rivers while also being pro-development.

Ultimately, getting to 100 percent renewables and no new dams would require major changes to Chile's regulatory framework, which still benefits large development projects like dams and coal plants. The latest debate surrounds revisions to the Electricity Law. When the law was passed in 1983, large-scale dams were seen as less controversial than they are today. With so many many gigantic, glacial-fed rivers, dams would have been the only form of renewable energy that was feasible for wide scale implementation. A new bill to revise the law is being criticized for promoting large infrastructure projects like dams in Patagonia, despite being hailed as a tool to promote nonconventional renewable energies (NCREs) like wind and geothermal.

Six watersheds being prioritized by Chile's energy ministry for hydroelectric development.

According to Juan Pablo Orrego, director of the Santiago-based environmental group Ecosistemas, the proposed bill would create development zones from Santiago to Aysen, which he and others are calling "sacrifice zones." According to Orrego, the bill would make it easier to build transmission lines for use in shipping energy generated from Patagonia to other parts of the country or even across the border to neighboring Argentina. "Oddly enough, the bill is supposedly designed to promote NCREs, but in reality it is just promoting more megadams."

These legislative moves, which are in keeping with a pro-dams energy policy, run counter to new research showing better alternatives.

New Research

From a global perspective, Chile is tremendously fortunate. New studies show the country doesn't have to choose between coal—which contributes to global warming and has other social and environmental costs—and large dams, which bring their own problems. This new research could form the basis for future policymaking to address climate change, both by preserving freshwater resources and taking an ambitious approach to greening the grid.

In 2015, the NewClimate Institute in Germany analyzed the missed benefits of Chile's INDC. Researchers concluded that Chile could save $5.3 billion USD per year and create approximately 15,000 new jobs by implementing energy policies that aimed to hit 100 percent renewable energies, with no new large hydro. The NewClimate study was submitted to Chile's Ministry of Environment in mid 2015 by the Mesa Ciudadana de Cambio Climático, a Chilean coalition of more than 20 groups working to inform policymaking on topics like energy policy and climate justice.

Going further is Stanford University's Solutions Project, a global initiative to catalogue each country's energy roadmap with the goal of determining how the world can shift entirely to 100 percent clean, renewable energy. According to Stanford's analysis, Chile can achieve 100 percent renewables with just 6.7 percent coming from all forms of hydropower (and a whopping 54 percent from solar). These figures are far different from the Ministry of Energy's analysis, which started with assumptions many critics disagree with.

Kayak on the middle section of the Fuy River.Jakub Sedivy

Together, studies like those by Stanford and the NewClimate Institute show policymakers could be discussing ways for Chile to become a global leader by making sure energy policy and water conservation are both optimized for addressing climate change. The Stanford project's director, Professor Mark Jacobson, highlights the need for informed policymaking. "I believe that getting information into the hands and minds of people is the most significant barrier that needs to be overcome to grow large scale implementation of renewables." Better planning is needed not only for conservation but also to seek more ambitious emissions reductions and help the world achieve the goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, as established by the Paris agreement.

Let Patagonia's Rivers Run

In Chile the protection of rivers has yet to become a national priority, but the tide is shifting. One solution is to establish new legislation that would protect rivers due to their wild or scenic value. This model has worked in other countries and could be an effective tool in Chile, where several rivers still flow to the sea or have sections that are still undeveloped. It could also be incorporated into the national plan for climate change mitigation, proposed by researchers at the University of Chile's Center for Climate Science and Resilience (CR2).

Juan Pablo Orrego of Ecosistemas argues the need to pass deep reforms that are not biased in favor of large hydro development. "Watersheds that empty into the sea are incredibly important for climate change. Their estuaries produce coastal habitats that are rich in phytoplankton, which act as tremendous carbon sinks. If you seek other sources of renewable energy, you are actually combating climate change just by keeping the rivers wild."

The concerns of watershed advocates like Orrego echo an international consensus, as indicated in the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. A scientific report presented during the Paris talks details how the goals include sustainable management of water resources. Specifically, target 6.6 focuses on "protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes" by 2020. But these ecosystems can't be saved if countries like Chile decide that large dams are still the answer to climate change. And in March 2016, the UN excluded large hydro-electric dams (defined as above 50MWs) from its global calculations of renewable energies. Though the reasons it gave were difficulties measuring large dams as they come online and political uncertainties, the move is seen as an attempt to narrow in the definition of renewable energies. The international debate concerning large hydro is important for countries when planning for carbon reductions.

Ralco dam at Biobio River.Roberto Araya

It remains to be seen whether the people designing Chile's national energy policy can adjust. In January 2016, the same Committee of Ministers that invalidated the HydroAysén permit upheld the permit granted to build Energía Austral's 640MW hydro project on Patagonia's Río Cuervo. One month prior, they upheld the permit for the Mediterraneo project on the Puelo River (see Map.) Together these approvals suggest a political unwillingness to reverse plans that were already in place, even though the plans may no longer be relevant or needed to shift to a 100 percent renewable target.

Pangue dam at the Biobio River.Álvaro Maurín

In economic terms, Patagonia's rivers are important for inland communities that depend on sightseeing and adventure tourism. And they are critical for coastal communities that thrive on the same marine ecosystems that act as carbon sinks. These communities need nutrients carried to the sea by unobstructed rivers. Going forward, better information about the locations of these rivers can help inform both the public and policymakers about what is at stake if this energy policy isn't turned around.

Rather than letting Patagonia's rivers be dammed, diverted or destroyed, Chilean policymakers could incorporate river conservation into the country's response to climate change. Doing so would demonstrate leadership over climate issues. By revising energy policy to exclude large hydro as a priority and establishing a river protection law similar to the "wild & scenic rivers" designation found in other countries, Chile could become a global leader on climate and ensure its rivers flow unobstructed from the mountains to the sea.

Patrick Lynch is an environmental attorney in Chile and participates in the Citizens' Committee on Climate Change, which presents renewable energy studies to the Chilean government. Since 2013, he has served as International Director for Futaleufú Riverkeeper, a Patagonia-based NGO. This article was supported by an EcoPatagonia reporting grant from Patagon Journal in partnership with Earth Journalism Network. More info here.

This article was supported by an EcoPatagonia reporting grant from Patagon Journal in partnership with the Earth Journalism Network.

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