THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Good Week for Rivers

It’s been a bad week for dams – and a very good one for the
world’s rivers.

In Queensland, Australia, river protectors thrilled to the
news today that their long fight to Save the Mary River from the ravages of a large dam is, finally, over. The
nation’s Environment Minister announced the rejection of the proposed Traveston
Dam due to its ''unacceptable impacts on matters of national environment
significance.''

The river-endangering dam would likely have killed off a few
endangered species (including a lungfish species that has been around since the dinosaurs roamed the earth), flooded
farmland, and dewatered the river for miles. The Sydney Morning Herald said,
“By stopping the dam, experts said, [Peter] Garrett had made the biggest
decision by an environment minister in 10 years of national environment laws.”
Residents of the Mary Valley, 160 kilometres north of Brisbane, had for three
years fought the dam with everything they had – from horseback protests to
long-distance canoe trips to a widespread grassroots PR campaign that saw every
fence post and farm building in the Mary River valley sporting signs to Save the Mary.

These dogged and inspiring activists succeeded in creating a
national debate on the dam, and shone a bright spotlight on the project’s
flaws. Valley residents had been on edge for three years; now, they can get on
with their lives – and take immense pride in their accomplishment to save a critical
watershed.

Halfway around the world, in Mexico, equally inspiring
community activists have prevailed in their fight to prevent a bad dam project
planned near Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico. In late October,
the governor of Jalisco State announced the cancellation of the Arcediano
Dam
.
The dam was expected to bring serious health risks for the three million
people who would drink its water, since its source – the highly polluted
Santiago River – is the recipient of large amounts of untreated domestic and
industrial wastewater. In 2001, the National Water Commission called the
Santiago unsuitable to supply drinking
water.

It’s the second such announcement in Mexico this year; in
May the Mexican press reported that another big dam – this one near Acapulco –
is being postponed. Since 2004, thousands of local farmers have been fighting
the construction of La Parota Dam
in Guerrero state. They staged blockades, protests and legal actions, and
often faced violent police repression in return.

Further
south, Brazil, now on the verge of massive damming of the Amazon, may be
slowing its dam boom down a bit as well. This week, a judge suspended the licensing process
for Brazil’s biggest dam, the huge Belo Monte hydropower project, and
ordered new public hearings on the project. Past public hearings on the
contested project broke down in protests in September after it became clear the
process was a sham
. The judgement buys some time for
activists working to raise concerns about the dam’s true costs, and its huge
impacts on one of the world’s most important river systems.

As if to
show just how in-the-dark Brazil’s dam builders are, the Belo Monte ruling came
the same day as a huge regional blackout, caused by a flawed transmission
system from Brazil’s huge Itaipu Dam. The outage left a third of Brazil’s
population in the dark. According to Associated Press, "It is at least the fourth time since 1985
that Brazil has suffered a massive power outage involving transmission lines
from Itaipu."

Dams were also in the news in California this week. The
Golden State has been all abuzz over a new water plan, pushed by Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger and recently passed behind closed doors by the Legislature. The
plan is intended to correct some of the biggest problems with our
over-engineered water supply system. But critics say the plan goes too easy on
agricultural interests

(our biggest water user), and that there are better alternatives to
the planned engineering projects. 
The Governator’s proposal to build new big water-storage dams and a
canal to ship water to Southern California go against the tide
of river restoration sweeping the country – including, most recently, a plan to
remove four destructive dams on the Klamath River on the California-Oregon
border. These dams have been killing fish and harming water quality for decades. In fact, the new water plan has a devious twist: It would grant money to help bring down the dams, but could harm the main tributary of the Klamath with greater water withdrawals. Let's hope California's river lovers can find some inspiration from these global victories, and mount a campaign  to improve our water system without damaging new dams.

But that fight will come another day. For today, here's to the activists in Australia and Mexico who fought so well to protect their rivers. We raise our water glasses to you: To Rivers! To Water! To Life!