Greg Thomas

Dam-aging Structures

Recorded: January 15, 2013

Watch this eye-opener about the proliferation of dams worldwide and the threats they pose to fresh water ecosystems. Greg Thomas talks about his experience with dams in China and worldwide, and what can be done to protect the downstream freshwater resources.

A natural resource attorney, Greg has been able to meld his love of the environment, law and world travel to create a better world. Greg founded the Natural Heritage Institute (NHI) after many years as the senior staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international program.

He is a Fulbright Professor and advisor to the national environmental ministry of China, and has taught law at UCLA and UC Berkeley.  Greg’s practice of natural resource law and management has involved energy, air quality, water issues, biodiversity, environmental planning and international conservation. Greg has more than 35 years of experience in litigation, administrative trials, legislative advocacy, policy analysis, institutional design, and consensus building processes. At NHI, he develops and manages large-scale projects in California, throughout the United States and internationally.

Huey Johnson:   The future of rivers would seem to me, could be predicted by you more than anyone.  With background you have and the work you’re doing now worldwide, how do you feel about what river’s going to be a hundred years from now, both in the U.S. and the world with that change aspect?

Greg Thomas:    Its troubling Huey, in all candor it really is troubling.  I mean the current state of affairs is already pretty deplorable.  You know there are, around the world now, almost 50,000 large dams, dams that are 15 meters high or larger on virtually every major river system in the world.  And some of them have been so pervasively developed that they’re really just a series of now sterile impoundments.

So the damage that’s been caused already is extreme.  You may know that fresh water ecosystems are the most endangered ecosystem type on the planet; you know more so than tropical forests, more so than the oceans at the rate of extinction of fresh water dependent species is you know just, it’s quite staggering.

And you know the demands on that resource are growing apace.  Again, you know in the U.S., we’ve about completed the infrastructure development that these rivers can support; you know all the good dam sites are pretty well taken here.  But in many parts of the world, I mean China where half of these dams have already been built, is now on a tear to double its hydropower capacity within the next 20 years.

Greg Thomas:    So you know, everything is up for grabs.  Everything is fair game there, likewise in Brazil and much of Latin America and then throughout Africa because you know it is a part of the world where economic development has been much deferred and is badly needed with highest you know population growth on the planet and that’s going to result in much more, much more development of these, of these freshwater resources.

So there’s an enormous challenge now to you know develop a better toolkit for figuring out how that development can be channeled and structured in a way that minimizes the damage and in the case of already built infrastructure, re-operated in order to bring back the natural functions in these rivers.

In the main, the focus has been on strategies that recognize, that for the most part the dams of the world are not going to be removed any time soon, at least not until you know the end of their lifetime when they become obsolete and dangerous and meanwhile, there’s going to be many more dams built.  Its just inevitable and the parts of the world that are hungry for water and power resources, there’s a real juggernaut that is you know inevitably going to result in more development of river resources.  And the big challenge is to advance the state of knowledge and develop techniques that can maintain natural functions in these river systems in the face of, you know infrastructure that’s already there and infrastructure that is likely to be developed.

Huey Johnson:    Is our fisheries given consideration in this rush to build dams in other countries?

Greg Thomas:    It’s very; the picture is very different in different countries in all candor.  You know a lot of my work has been in China and China is an example of the kind of attitude that I think you find pretty pervasively in developing countries around the world.  You know China is a very technologically advanced country and the means to manage their built infrastructure better are clearly available.  But the good news, Huey, is that I think the day of increased attention to environmental values has dawned, virtually everywhere in the world and you know it’s not so much matter now of selling them on the importance of better environmental management but helping them figure out how to do it.