Come for the stunning imagery, stay for the equally compelling history of dams in America.

The former Elwha Dam looms overhead as DamNation producer and underwater photographer Matt Stoecker prepares to film Chinook salmon trapped below the impassable wall of concrete in a scene from DamNation. Photo: Travis Rummel

Produced by  filmmaker Travis Rummel, biologist and photographer Matt Stoecker, and Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard, DamNation documents both the history of dam construction in America and the growing awakening of its impacts.

A pod of wild pink salmon swim up the pristine and free flowing Susitna River just below the site of a proposed mega dam being pushed by the State of Alaska in a scene from DamNation. Photo: Matt Stoecker

DamNation balances statistics with stories from a variety of viewpoints including dam operators, regulators, politicians, and activists. More than 75,000 dams over three feet tall currently obstruct  America’s rivers. A vast majority of them were constructed between 1950 and 1970.

In order to reach their spawning grounds in Olympic National Park, salmon and steelhead on Washington’s undammed Sol Duc River must launch past a waterfall known as the Salmon Cascades in a scene from DamNation. Photo: Travis Rummel

A barge-mounted excavator hammers away at Glines Canyon Dam, the largest dam removal in U.S. history. Elwha River, Olympic National Park, Washington in a scene from DamNation. Photo: Ben Knight

Economic recovery, flood control, hydroelectric power, and irrigation were often the primary drivers for their construction. Catastrophic failures endangering human life, decline of biodiversity, species loss, increasing awareness of the displacement of native populations, and under realized benefits have led a growing demand for their removal.

DamNation does not hold back in its use of gut-wrenching evidence of these impacts, like images of the Hetch Hetchy valley before and after construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam.

Back to the future? A century old I.W. Taber photograph shows the beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley and Toulumne River before the dam and reservoir buried this national treasure in a scene from DamNation Photo: Matt Stoecker

Yet it conveys a hopeful message, subtly suggesting that we are on the brink of an enormous opportunity as so many of these structures are reaching the end of their design lives. The day-to-day cost of operation and maintenance, need for big ticket repairs, and risk to safety will only continue to increase with time.

Before and after: A renewed pulse of life, and recreation, flows along Washington’s White Salmon River after the removal of Condit Dam in a scene from DamNation. Photo: Ben Knight

As one joins the filmmakers on this journey, one can’t help but consider the questions it poses. What is the true cost of progress and achievement? Can and should we continue harness the power of nature? And ultimately, where should we go from here?

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