Queen Elsa and Princess Anna: Unexpected Proponents of Dam Removal

Yes, I will admit it.  I went and saw Frozen II.

Unexpectedly, the movie carried a message I can appreciate, especially as a fish scientist who has studied the impacts of dams on rivers and migratory fish.

Building a Good Foundation

There are things you do for people because you love them, and seeing this movie falls on that list. 

A few weeks ago, the children in my life were invited to a birthday party to see Frozen II.  The kids got all dressed up in their Queen Elsa and Princess Anna costumes and off we went.

Truth be told, I walked into the movie thinking it would be another silly princess movie.  However, I walked out of the movie excited to know that with this movie, Disney has created a new generation of kids who understand why removing old, derelict dams has positive consequences for the environment.

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Ironic for Disney, the oldest recorded dam in history is called the Jawa Dam, and originates from around 3,000 BC.  Since that time, dams have continued to play an important role in human history and development, offering many benefits like regulated water supply, hydroelectricity, and flood protection, to name a few.

Despite the benefits that dams can provide in our daily lives, many dams are old, unsafe, and create dangerous problems…some seen and others unseen.


Spoiler alert

Elsa, Queen of Arendelle, had a mighty adventure in the first Frozen when she removed herself from society to protect everyone from the accidental damage she caused with her magical power: the ability to freeze things.

In her new saga, Elsa is haunted by a voice calling out to her from the forest.  The voice leads her on an adventure that helps her understand the long-standing negative impacts of the actions of her ancestors.  Specifically, Elsa discovers that her grandfather, King Runeard, wanted to subjugate the native people of the forest (Northuldra) by creating a dam that would limit their resources and limit their power.  Elsa sees that not only the people, but also the forest and natural world continue to suffer because of the impact of the dam built many years ago.

Anna and Elsa first hear about the negative impacts the old dam is having on the people and environment.

Removing Cartoon Dams

After understanding the impact on the environment of the now useless dam, Princess Anna uses ingenuity (and a bit of help from magical rock giants) to destroy the dam.

“The dam must fall.  It is the only way to break the mist and free the forest.  Arendelle has no future until we make this right.” -Princess Anna of Arendelle

Upon destroying the dam, the forest is saved, an entire culture of people is freed, and the environment is left to restore itself to a new state of normal.

Real World Dams

Around the globe, there are hundreds of thousands of dams.  The negative impacts of these dams range from migratory fish passage issues to reduction of nutrients in forests and water flow alterations.  Many of the dams in the world are no longer in use and stand as monuments to a bygone reminder of the industrial revolution, and derelict saw mills, sugar plantations, grist mills, and other antiquated uses for damming water.

The world Commission on Dams states: “”dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, and benefits derived from them have been considerable… in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment.”

The environmental impacts of dams were rarely understood when these dams were constructed.  One of the most egregious stories occurred on the Columbia River in 1934, when the Minister of Fisheries in Canada concluded (Page 44 of this document),

there is no commercial salmon fishery on the Columbia River in Canada…, and hence Canadian interests in that respect will not be affected if the dam at Grand Coulee is not equipped with fishway facilities.”

This simple statement and lack of understanding of the value of salmon (beyond their economic benefit as a fishery) lead to the construction of Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River absent fish ladders.  The lack of fish passage as part of Grand Coulee Dam, at that time the largest dam ever built, lead to the collapse of the largest salmon population in human history and the demise of multiple tribes of Native Americans and First Peoples.

Removing Real World Dams

Dam removal is a slowly growing trend. As dams become older, and the costs to update and repair the dams outpace the revenue gained from keeping them in place, owners are starting to take them down.  Additionally, these older dams no longer provide protection from flooding, but rather, threaten even worse flooding when they fail.

Returning to a New Normal

More than 1,600 dams have been removed in the United States since 1912, with 99 of them occurring in 2018 alone.

The 2012 removal of Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, USA provides significant hope that with dam removal, we can recover environmental benefits.  Salmon are thriving in the river and ecological processes are recovering. This was the largest purposeful dam removal in history and provides a blueprint for future removal of large dams across the globe.

Be a Queen, King, Prince, or Princess of Environmental Stewardship

As mentioned, dams provide many benefits in our daily lives, but it is imperative to also understand the negative impacts and ensure that we minimize those impacts and eliminate those that are causing problems.  We can have our cake and eat it too! 

In fact, there are plenty of groups out there that are helping to celebrate and promote improved fish passage and improved waterways.

You, too, can be like Anna and Elsa and become more aware of the dams in your area and the impacts they are having (good and bad).  Discovering old, unused, and unsafe dams and bringing them to the attention of proper officials can lead to removal.

The removal of Cambalache Dam in Puerto Rico.

I know this first hand.  More than 10 years ago, I was charged with finding every man-made impediment to fish migration in Puerto Rico, an island located in the Caribbean.  I demonstrated which dams were no longer in use, and therefore, would provide the greatest benefit if removed. This information was recently used as evidence to remove the Cambalache Dam on the Río Grande de Arecibo. Too bad I didn’t have any magical rock giants to help take it down faster!

It is my hope that we continue to utilize dams in a positive manner, while better understanding their negative impacts.  And like Anna and Elsa in Frozen 2, we can have a positive impact on the environment and remove or improve those dams that create more harm than good.

Written by: Patrick Cooney

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