Dam-Building Fervor Wanes in U.S. but Picks Up Steam in Third World : Environment: Even the Bureau of Reclamation is getting out of the business. Massive projects are considered too hard on people, ecosystems.


Dam it. Dirty words today--they have become so sensitive that some of the biggest dam builders in the nation and the world don’t even want to whisper them.

Not only is the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, once one of the premier dam builders in the American West, out of the dam-building business; its spokesmen say it no longer acts as technical consultant for such colossal foreign projects as China’s Three Gorges Dam.

The world’s largest hydroelectric project, the dam is expected to cost at least $10 billion, displace a million people, destroy a natural wonder on the Yangtze River and take 15 years to complete.

The World Bank, the single largest international source of money for water projects, is financing fewer and fewer dams, because they have become so controversial, sources say. The bank recently canceled the final portion of its loan for India’s Sardar Sarovar Dam, which rivals the Three Gorges in scale and impact.


Giant dam projects have proliferated in the last 50 years as the primary means of supplying water and generating hydropower--often without regard to social and ecological consequences.

Environmentalists contend that U.S. experts shouldn’t compound past ecological catastrophes by continuing to provide engineering models to the rest of the dam-building world.

Worldwide, more than 35,000 large dams rise above 50 feet in height, and more than 110 giants, classified as “megadams,” tower higher than 450 feet. Two-thirds of the megadams built in the 1980s are in developing countries. Soaring nearly 1,000 feet, the Nurek Dam in former Soviet Tajikistan is the highest anywhere.

What U.S. dam builders accomplished in less than half a century is considered so extraordinary that it can be compared to a geological force--except that it happened almost overnight.


“The mightiest thing ever built by a man,” Woody Guthrie sang in 1941 of Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state, which has the greatest megawatt output in the United States and the third-largest in the world.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, created in 1933, controls 47 dams that generate power for a once underdeveloped region, helps control flooding, fills reservoirs for water sports and eases river navigation.

About 75,000 dams of all sizes operate in the United States. But the glow has gone off water development. Many of the best sites have been used up. Only 9% of river miles in the lower 48 states remain undeveloped, said Kevin J. Coyle, president of American Rivers, a conservation organization.

The belief that big projects serve everyone has been tarnished by the image of rampant congressional pork barrel. Power dams in particular upset ecosystems. And many people regret the dam-caused loss of scenic wonders such as Glen Canyon on the Colorado River in Arizona.


“The big trend now is dam removal. We are moving beyond the view that dams, once built, are a permanent feature of the landscape,” said Matthew Huntington of American Rivers.

Although the “age of dams” has ended in the United States, massive dam-building continues virtually unabated in developing countries. With an international- community-be-damned posture, some national governments such as Malaysia’s are bypassing the World Bank and financing multibillion-dollar dams on their own.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s research laboratory in Denver has produced models and blueprints for water projects all around the world.

With its new mandate to engage in water-resource management and environmental restoration, the bureau is winding down its technical-support effort overseas, said Lisa Guide, a bureau spokeswoman in Washington. “Large-scale water-retention basins (dams) are no longer economically and environmentally feasible,” she said.


“It’s ironic that as the United States downsizes its dam-building, the developing countries are building dams using our approach and models,” said Deborah Moore, a staff scientist for the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund. “We are now seeing the long-term effects, and others are not learning from these lessons. If we had it to do over, we’d probably do it differently.”

The World Bank’s new international water resources management policy, announced in mid-September, states that the bank will take “a comprehensive approach” to solving water scarcity, pollution and environmental problems. Such an approach would consider the ecological impact on entire watersheds.

But Moore said that the new policy “begs the question about whether it will avoid creating more Sardar Sarovar disasters” in the future.

“The proof will be in the bank’s lending pipeline, which still contains the large-scale-dam approach,” she said. “Will we see a dramatic decline in investments for such costly projects?” The bank said it supports fewer than 8% of the dams under construction.


Sardar Sarovar, on the Narmada River, is under review by the Indian government, said Lori Udall, an attorney in Washington for the EDF, which has worked with grass-roots environmental groups in India for seven years to stop construction.

“The dam wall (now 230 feet high) may be completed, but the project will never be finished without international financing,” she predicted. Most of the 13,000 people who have been resettled so far are still living in windowless tin sheds.

Although the U.S. government is not involved in India’s dam, it is modeled after those in the American West.

One of the most enormous water projects ever designed on the North American continent, the James River hydroelectric project in Canada’s Quebec Province now attracts more international engineering attention than the pioneering U.S. dams. If completed, the Hydro-Quebec undertaking would include at least 30 major dams.


“Most of the real dam-building is going on in countries like China. They have about 250 under construction,” said Larry D. Stephens, executive director of the Denver-based U.S. Committee on Large Dams, an association of engineers and scientists.

When completed, China’s Three Gorges will produce as much hydroelectric power as the world’s two largest dams combined, the Guri (Raul Leon) in Venezuela and the Itaipu on the Brazil-Paraguay border.