On Dams and Democracy
94 Pages Posted: 11 Sep 2008 Last revised: 24 Nov 2008
Date Written: Fall 1999
For the first time, on July 1, 1999, the federal government ordered the destruction of a dam over the objection of its owner. This marked a turning point in the environmental policy of the United States, reversing the national philosophy that had endured for much of the century. During the twentieth century, the United States demonstrated a dam-building obsession. Dams were undoubtedly vital to our political culture, serving as physical symbols our democratic society. Further, they promoted democracy by generating electricity, by supporting irrigation, water storage, flood-control, and recreational functions necessary to a vibrant society. However, by 1970, the dam-building movement began to dissipate. Concerns about negative environmental consequences or dismal cost-benefit ratios slowed dam approval. Demolitions of dams that could no longer justify their continued existence started occurring. This Article observes that there was a rough correlation between the rise of dams and the rise of the administrative state during the New Deal era, and argues that democratic values were sacrificed often at the altar of technology. Conversely, the demise of dam building correlates with the resurgence of democratic and environmental values, disenchantment with the administrative state, and an increasing distrust of big government insulated from citizen input. To guide the analysis of the extent to which federal dam policy has departed from democratic principles, this Article asks who made dam-related decisions, and on what basis those decisions were made.
Keywords: dams, democracy, Army Corps of Engineers
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