A Visit to Ice Harbor Dam

Last month I visited Ice Harbor Lock and Dam on the Lower Snake River with my environmental studies class. We learned a great deal about fish passage, lock operation and dam construction.

Ice Harbor Dam, with a fish ladder on the near side and a lock on the far side.

The fish ladder is used by lamprey, jack, steelhead trout, and wild and hatchery salmon. This season 190,000 chinook salmon have already passed through!

As we toured the dam, I was constantly reminded of a much larger dam I visited just nine months ago: Itaipu Binacional. That enormous dam sits on the border between Paraguay and Brazil; it's one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World and the largest dam on earth after the Three Gorges Dam (and it claims to produce more electricity than Three Gorges.)

My classmates and I spell out O-H-I-O in front of Itaipu Dam.

Standing inside Itaipu Dam, looking down from a dizzying height.

One of the massive turbines seen from outside Itaipu Dam.

As I compare my two dam experiences, I notice differences in spillway engineering, turbine size, and electricity transportation, but the most interesting comparisons were the ones I could make between people's reactions.

At Itaipu Dam in Brazil, my study abroad program was led by a natural resources economist from Universidade de São Paulo, and each of us participants hailed from The Ohio State University College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences.

We toured the immense structure with an English-speaking guide, took a multitude of photos, and returned at night along with flocks of tourists to watch the famous light show. The next morning, we each wrote a journal entry in which we marveled at the dam's engineering and expressed our gratitude at the chance to see such a wonder (you can read mine here.) There was no mention of environmental impact or displacement of people.

Itaipu Dam at night after the lighting ceremony.

At Ice Harbor Dam in eastern Washington, my class was led by a geologist and professor of environmental studies from Whitman College, and each of us students had just watched a new documentary called DamNation and even heard from one of the film's subjects in person.

As we approached the dam itself, I heard a classmate say, "It's so ugly!" There was a murmur of agreement from the crowd. I asked my friends where this sentiment came from, and they told me they had always felt negatively toward dams. I wonder, though, how much of the reaction was based on the dam-critical documentary and lectures we had experienced in class that week? How much depended on the reactions of the peers surrounding them?

To me, the juxtaposition of my classmates' very different visceral reactions to dams -- wonder and awe versus skepticism and disgust -- was an example of how controversial topics like dams become polarized. One group focuses on the good, another on the bad, and the individuals within each group reinforce the opinions of the rest of the group. When individuals from the two groups meet, they might encounter a disconnect in emotional response (are dams beautiful or ugly?) and underlying assumptions (are dams fundamentally positive or negative?) which preclude meaningful dialogue.

I am endlessly intrigued by the processes through which individuals develop opinions about controversial political topics like dams. What would it take for a Whitman student to become pro-dam? What would it take for an Ohio State student to become anti-dam? At what point is someone open to changing her opinion, and at what point is she opposed to new ideas? Perhaps by understanding these processes, we can be better prepared to come together and address environmental issues which impact each of us.

The lone specimen of wildlife I noticed at Ice Harbor Dam: this female mallard duck chilling in the reservoir lake.

Irrigated wheat fields, vineyards and orchards seemed to increase as we neared the dam, which is the source of agricultural water in this arid region.

Whitman's Introduction to Environmental Studies class looks on at Ice Harbor Dam.