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Documentary chronicles history of dam-building, removal

"DamNation," a new documentary produced by Portola Valley's Matt Stoecker, makes the case for one of Mr. Stoecker's passions: the restoration of free-flowing streams.

The documentary tells the history of dam building and, recently, dam removal, in the U.S., opening with an audio recording of Franklin Roosevelt dedicating Hoover Dam on Sept. 30, 1935. "We are here to celebrate the completion of the greatest dam in the world," President Roosevelt says, "rising 726 feet above the bedrock of the river and altering the geography of the whole region."

The country, the documentary says, was once so enamored of dams and their promise that in the 1960s the Grand Canyon was considered for multiple dam sites and only saved from inundation by the efforts of Portola Valley's legendary river runner and environmentalist Martin Litton and conservation activist David Brower with the Sierra Club.

Today, however, the documentary shows, many of the country's more than 80,000 dams no longer serve the purposes they were built for, including power generation, flood control, water storage, recreation and ease of navigation. Dams have altered the courses of the rivers and streams they cross, obstructed the migration of native fish such as steelhead and salmon, flooded what were once beautiful scenic areas, and stopped the flow of silt and sediment from feeding beaches and estuaries, hastening coastal erosion.

"DamNation" shows the removal of a number of dams, starting 20 years ago on the Kennebec River in Maine, and more recently on the Elwha and White Salmon rivers in Washington, on the Rogue River in Oregon, and on the Penobscot River in Maine.

The movie documents the quick recovery of native fish and plant life along those waterways once the dams are gone. Removing dams has also restored Native American fishing culture, and revitalized river rafting, sport fishing and other recreational activities, the film shows.

Using archival video and vintage photographs, the movie shows before and after views of some of the areas that have been dammed, including the valley near Yosemite that is now the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

One segment has an interview with feisty 94-year-old Katie Lee, who as a young woman helped document the rich archeological history and natural beauty of Glen Canyon in Utah and Arizona before it was dammed in 1958. The interview is interlaced with a trove of photos and some film taken by Ms. Lee's companions, showing an area that is now underwater, including photos of Ms. Lee posing nude on some of the rock formations.

The documentary does not ignore the other side of dam removal, interviewing hydro-power workers and showing pro-dam rallies by farmers and ranchers.

The DVD of the documentary includes a short feature about Matt Stoecker, which is also available as a YouTube video.

Go to YouTube to see the video.

"DamNation" won best feature film recently at the San Francisco Green Film Festival as well as audience-choice awards at the South by Southwest and Mountain Film festivals.

Go to DamNationFilm.com for more information about the documentary.

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