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The Daily Tar Heel

'DamNation' emphasizes dam destruction and watershed importance

Chapel Hill native Ben Knight drove more than 10,000 miles across the country and spent the night next to a river dam in full camouflage waiting for it to be blown up so that he could record footage of the action.

The resulting film, "DamNation," has now won awards including the Audience Choice Award at South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Tex., and the award for Best Environmental Film at a film festival in Washington D.C. The film came to Durham Friday for the Full Frame Film Festival.

Knight, director and editor for the film, said he and his team started working on the film three years ago, when they were approached by outdoor equipment company Patagonia with the idea. Patagonia wanted to highlight the damage that dams across the U.S. are doing to the nation’s watersheds, river ecosystems and local communities.

“To me, they just were part of the landscape almost,” Knight said. “You drive by them, you see them, and you just sort of assume they’re going to be there forever. But that’s really not the case. There are a lot of dams that are doing a lot more harm than good.”

Matt Stoecker, producer and director of underwater photography, said dams are a problem mostly because of what they do to local fish populations — specifically salmon.

“From an ecosystem standpoint — fish like salmon and steelhead are so incredibly important — basically they swim the nutrients, the productivity of the ocean, upstream and up all these tributaries and disperse those nutrients throughout a watershed,” Stoecker said.

“Dams have severed that link between the ocean and the mountaintops.”

Once dams are built, salmon and other fish populations can no longer travel upstream. Stoecker cited a recent study that said more than 140 species depend on salmon at some point in their lives, and that list ranges from redwood trees to populations of orcas and seals.

He said dams also stop the replenishment of soil to coasts and coastal wetlands, contributing to sea level rise.

Both Knight and Stoecker also stressed one major impact of dams throughout history that the film hopes to show: the destruction of Native American culture. Specifically, Knight wanted to tell the story of Native American tribes from all over the Pacific Northwest who traveled to fish for salmon at Celilo Falls, a collection of waterfalls on the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington.

“In the ’50s when the Dalles Dam was constructed, they completely flooded those falls and thousands of years of cultural history were lost,” Knight said. “There’s really very little power being generated from (the dam) and it’s just kind of like a cultural genocide that happened.”

But Travis Rummel, director and producer of the film, said the recovery of rivers once dams are removed was inspiring and hopeful.

“When dams do come out, it’s incredible how quickly Mother Nature comes back. Nature is incredibly resilient,” Rummel said. “As soon as dams come down, like on the Elwha River, there was salmon beating their heads against the dam for 100 years and within months (of the dam’s removal) there were hundreds, if not thousands above where the dam was.”

Rummel said the film hopes to show people that the problems dams are creating can be fixed, to some extent, but he also said he hopes that it serves as a cautionary tale for countries around the world. The DamNation team has also started a call to action — a petition to remove destructive dams on the lower Snake River in southeastern Washington — and Knight said it has roughly 10,000 signatures.

“To me, a lot of the development we did 50 or 100 years ago was just incredibly short sighted and it really wrecked our watersheds,” Knight said. “We’re not asking a lot and we’re not trying to push our views on anyone with the film — we just want to help people appreciate their rivers a little bit more.”

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