In FDR's New Deal era, which was a federal response to an ecological and economic crisis (dust bowl and depression), it may have been reasonable to believe that dams and reservoirs were the best road to take to alleviate ecological problems. FDR built dams to bring jobs, electricity and flood control to rural regions in Appalachia and in America's west. Of course, FDR's policy was controversial among environmentalists in his day. John Muir's fight against Hetch Hetchy, perhaps the first instance of grassroots lobbying, went on from 1901 to 1913. According to the Sierra Club, "Despite opposition from many citizens, including most of the nation's leading newspapers, Congress passed the Raker Act in 1913 allowing the city of San Francisco to destroy Hetch Hetchy. The City built a dam and reservoir, drowning this beautiful valley, even though other less-damaging sites existed." It may be that interest in beauty and in sustainability go hand in hand. For instance, Vincent Bates recommends music ensemble teachers and learners "might spend time serving the community, working to clean, preserve, and beautify familiar spaces."
Today, the damage caused by dams and reservoirs is better understood than it was in the Dust Bowl era. We build dams and reservoirs to, as FDR did, to increase jobs, electricity, and to provide flood control. Reservoirs are designed to provide clean water for communities. In fact, building new dams is one of the "most common" ways to respond to drought conditions. In yesterday's Science Daily, research from Uppsala University suggests building and expanding dams and reservoirs can make drought conditions worse. They identify two possible reasons. 1. The supply-demand cycle theorizes that with increased supply (of water), demand increases. For instance, a person may choose landscape plants that require more water in if water is readily available, despite living in an arid region. Examples are turf lawns in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and California, where lusher garden landscapes are more appropriate. 2. The reservoir effect: "The expansion of reservoirs often reduces incentives for preparedness and adaptive actions, thus increasing the negative impacts of water shortage.."
I teach an introductory Western Art Music course at Penn State Altoona. Musically, Philip Glass's piece, The Dam, seems to capture some of the horror and hope we place on dams and reservoirs. Big, bright synthetic chords repeat (as Glass's music does) with uneasy, seemingly broken patterns. The wordless choir reminds me of those wordless choir sections in film, and often horror films (alternatively, the same effect is gotten in The Omen using Latin), where the drama reaches its peak. At this moment, the wordless choir symbolizes some sort of devastation or destruction. After The Dam's initial loud section, it immediately becomes soft as winds and strings play a more hopeful, wild-west-film-like pattern, only to return impatiently to the grand horror of the wordless choir. Perhaps The Dam connects to Glass's other ecological critiques, such as the Francis Ford Coppola film Koyaanisqatsi, which famously decried modern living as "life out of balance."
If we are going to, through music education when possible, return ourselves to a life more "in balance," we're going to need to rethink dams and reservoirs; and fall in love with swamps again, since they're such a requirement for ecosystems. A group aiming to restore Hetch Hetchy (by removing the dam) has a list of Songs for Hetch Hetchy on this website. These might also provide interesting pedagogical material for learning about dams and reservoirs, the ecological crises, and music.