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Once upon a time, this country had a widespread attitude toward its waterways large and small:
“Dam them all.”
The idea of controlling rivers and streams—dam-nation, if you will—dates to Colonial days. Late in the 19th century, water power became central to conservation practices that promoted “wise use” of the country’s natural resources for the greatest good. Until well into the 20th century, water power remained key to nation-building that focused on growing wealth (rural and urban development), even though coal had become the Industrial Revolution’s predominant power supply.
As a management strategy, the conservation idea made sense. To some extent, it showed new respect for natural resources by implementing managed, efficient resource use and renewal, including extensive use of water power.
Somewhere along the line, we found out that our road to dam-nation—with all of its good intentions—was fraught with serious environmental problems. The emergence of ecology as a science in the first decades of the 20th century was a wakeup call. As early as 1928, Percy Viosca, Jr. of the Louisiana Department of Conservation noted in the journal Ecology the alarming decline in numerous species because of human interference with wetlands. Over time, studies found that dams did real damage not only to the complex local ecosystems of freshwater rivers and streams, but also to the oceans.
So, it is good to note that the recent removal of a dam from the Wynants Kill tributary of the Hudson River has allowed herring to spawn there for the first time in 85 years, according to National Public Radio.
Many of these dams—about 1,500 in the Hudson River watershed alone—served an important purpose in their time. Besides the economic function of providing water power for industries and electric generation, they also reside in romantic memory of community life “down by the old mill stream.”
Having relatively few dams might not have been so bad, but their widespread proliferation diminished fish populations by eliminating spawning areas and crucial wetlands that cradled many different forms of life. Coupled with the advent of industrialized overfishing, we can now see how widespread local dam construction contributed to wholesale collapse of ocean fish populations.
Ironically, in the past, conservation experts called dam building, large and small, “reclamation.” This was the heart of conservation as wise use, the conversion of “unused” land, water, forests, and other natural resources into scientifically managed projects that built wealth and profitability, supposedly for the common good. “Unproductive” resources, such as free-flowing streams and their wetlands, were anathema. In fact, shallows and swamps were seen as sources of pestilence. Water was there to be put to work to benefit humans, and dams were the way to do it. If not, the water was being wasted.
The notion of resources for human use was pervasive. On his train trip back East after his stunning loss to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, outgoing President Herbert Hoover stopped in Boulder City, Nevada, on November 12, at the construction site of the massive dam that eventually would bear his name. One of “the great engineer’s” remarks captures the essence of “reclamation” and human domination of nature:
“The waters of this great river [the Colorado], instead of being wasted in the sea, will now be brought into use by man. And you will realize from this that civilization advances with the practical application of knowledge in just such structures as the one being built here in the pathway of one of the great rivers of the continent. The spread of its values in human happiness is beyond computation.” [Italics added.]
Control and domination of nature for human use and happiness were central to nation building. Dam projects were intended to generate electricity for industrial development and job creation, irrigate crops, control floods, and open waterways to transportation, with the added benefit of recreational opportunities in the reshaped environment. The approach, applied over several generations, made us far wealthier, economically at least. But riverscapes were ravaged, with environmental consequences that have become more evident as our ever-intensifying impacts on the global ecology continue to play out.
In our wildest dreams, it is wonderful to imagine all rivers being returned to a free-flowing, wild, more natural state. Of course, that is unlikely.
But dams are being removed every year at a slow pace on federal lands and private property for safety and environmental reasons. Wildlife habitat is being reclaimed for the original residents.
Repairing the damage by removing or modifying dams requires planning. It takes time, partly because of the cost. More important are environmental considerations involved in reversing damage done generations ago. Existing dams, if they are safe and perform vital services for humans, can, in some cases, be modified to allow for the passage of migrating fish. From an ecological standpoint, dam modification is a pragmatic compromise with residual negative environmental consequences. But it is a step in the right direction, especially where existing hydropower can continue to substitute for carbon fuel power generation that contributes to global warming.
Over the past 30 years or so, dam removal and modification have become important for healing our stressed local and global ecological systems. We have learned from the “reclamation” mistakes of our forebears who sought to manage the Earth. We have turned reclamation on its head, as we strive to reclaim, in the best sense of the word, ecological balance for our overworked rivers and landscapes.
Engaging in new wise “reclamation” of waterways to allow use by their rightful residents—the fish and wildlife that are so hard-pressed to survive in a human-dominated world—suggests our human species, over the past several decades, has eked its way toward a certain level of ecological maturity. So far, so good.
“Un-managing” the Earth, carefully reclaiming it to re-establish more diverse ecosystems, is good for humans and other animal species in both the long and short runs. Dam removal will ultimately result in healthier watersheds that will help heal at least some wounds we have inflicted on the suffering Earth.
Some might call this process a kind of salvation for ourselves and the planet. Perhaps we should call it un-dam-nation that might make all life more secure and sustainable.
Timothy Collins is an independent writer, editor, and consultant and proprietor of Then and Now Media. From 2005 to 2016, he was assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. He is the author of Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.