Free the rivers!

Really. If a dam is not an important current hydroelectric source, why not remove it next time it needs major renovation? Oh, and if you live downstream, move.

That’s my idea for World Rivers Day which is traditionally celebrated on the last Sunday in September. I’ll be at the river! Here’s the details.

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17 thoughts on “Free the rivers!

  1. I suspect that this is a rather more complicated suggestion than you seems to think it is. There are far more concerns than merely the people who live downriver, though that is no small concern in itself. While I would happily agree with you, that we need to find considerably better ways to allow the ecosystems of rivers to function around dams.

    One of the problems with your suggestion is that it would would be it’s own ecological disaster at and around many dams. You can’t release massive deluges of water without having a rather significant impact on the local eco system. Nor can you drain the sometimes massive bodies of water that have been built behind many dams, without having a major impact.

    Another problem, with tendrils in the last, is that most dammed rivers have systems of dams that are interconnected. Take the Columbia River Basin, for an example. Over the course of 1200 miles, plus hundreds of tributaries, there are 76 dams. The Columbia River itself is host to fourteen dams. If you were to remove dams upriver, it would fuck up the balance for downriver dams. While there are probably a few dams that could be removed without impacting the whole, there probably aren’t that many.

    The other problem is that even dams that produce minimal power are often a important components of the power grid. They pick up slack when there is a higher demand and ensure that larger producers don’t have to take drastic measures that might have a negative environmental impact.

    I will admit that my understanding of dams and rivers is entirely limited to my knowledge of the Columbia River and things might be different in smaller dam systems. I doubt however, they are all that different. Having managed to scope out the dam system around Fort Loudon in TN, I suspect that many of them are actually more complicated because they are not part of a massive system. They have to control larger bodies of water, creating all sorts of new waterways that need to be dealt with.

  2. Pretty stupid idea. Why exclude dams that produce electricity? Why are flood control or irrigation water provision less important? There are thousands of dams in the US alone that usefully do this. The are many others that ought to be removed. The typical broad brush easy-answer-wrong-answer approach.

  3. Yeah, I’m especially known for my none nuanced broad brushed approaches. As well as my off the cuff comments. You never know. Anyway, you’ve both missed the point. I did not tell you to remove the damn. I asked you why it should not be removed.

  4. Ok, let me rephrase my earlier comment – or rather just pretend that I prefaced it with; “the following would indeed be why…”

    I would note that while you on the rare occasion piss me off with them, your off the cuff comments are usually cause for interesting conversations. Dam you…

  5. I’m just thinking about the damn dam down the street from me, on the Mississippi. the county has given up responsibiltiy for it to the state, the sate to the county, and the feds say they have no intention of maintaining it . Five years ago a 30 year repair was completed, and that repair is now undone by unexpected erosion, so the dam will collapse in a few years if not rebuilt. It only serves to form an upstream boat basin for a few pleasure boats for denizins of a remote outer ring suburb.

    And a walking path across the river.

    THe hydro power is taken out, the flood control thingies do not function, water flows across it all year except when totally frozen (which is rare).

    It would be nice to see the river free of one of its hundreds of dams.

  6. Then there’s the silt.

    There are many smaller streams with old dams that have silted up completely. If the dam is removed, there is immediately a small gorge with fast water where the dam was that is continuously moving upstream from the resulting erosion.

    Banks with lots of trees cave in and all that silt has to go somewhere.

    I have hated dams, on principle, since I was a boy and found out that a nearby stream was as shallow upstream of the dam as downstream. Just an artificial water fall.

  7. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, where one might expect people to take the lead on environmental initiatives, they can’t even agree to remove Argo Dam on the Huron River.

    It was built to generate hydroelectric power but hasn’t done so since 1959. The USGS considers it to be one of the top two state dams that most heavily modify a river’s flow, resulting in wild velocity fluctuations downstream. The dam is in need of $550,000 in repairs and costs $60,000 a year to maintain (which the city has been putting off for decades because of the cost), while removing the dam would cost more than a million dollars but have little subsequent cost.

    Pros: restore six miles of river to its proper ecology (and open it up for better canoeing and kayaking), recreate thirty acres of floodplain forest (all city parkland) and save the city a lot of money in the long term.

    Cons: the U of M men’s rowing team, two high school teams and a rowing club will have to commute to impoundments 5 or 15 miles away, and removal will cost more in the short term.

    Guess which plan seems to be garnering more consideration.

  8. Dams have numerous uses other than a source of hydroelectric power. Aside from supplying water to cities, some are essential for flood control. (Although if there’s too much water for them to handle, the dam may actually make the situation worse.) Anyway, a beaver’s got to build its dams, and boy do they make a mess.

    As for old dams which are nothing but a hazard, diverting the river and sealing off the dam may be the best option for the larger dams (or even digging a diversion and dumping the rocks and dirt over the old dam).

    One of the big problems with many existing dams is that (a) greenies whine about building yet more dams, which means that (b) more demand for water is placed on existing dams and (c) less water will be allowed to flow, resulting in (d) everything downstream is royally screwed. Another issue with many dams is the temperature of water released; many natural rivers are shallow enough that the water remains fairly warm, but even small dams can have much lower temperatures. Many rivers have such poor flow that leaching of metals and stagnation are huge problems as well. It’s just one of those things – dammed if you do, and dammed if you don’t.

  9. @DuWayne: One class of dams which I’ll admit can be a huge nuisance (I totally forgot about them – shows how long since I’ve been on a working farm) are private dams maintained and operated by farmers. They’re often a nuisance even when operational, and if they’re abandoned they’re nothing but trouble. They’re almost as bad as mine tailings dams. Even farmers themselves often wish they didn’t need them, but no one wants to put up big bucks to solve some farmer’s problem – so they all address their problems individually and sometimes create a far bigger mess.

  10. @Greg: Ah, OK, I know that game of musical chairs. “It’s not our responsibility and we don’t have the money to do it anyway.” It usually ends pretty badly – everyone passes the buck until the goddamned thing collapses and kills people, then everyone points a finger at everyone else. It’s exactly the same story for abandoned mine sites – over 100 years of this bullshit and still no one ever takes responsibility.

  11. Not only should the people living downstream move, we should be systematically dismantling human “developments” in the floodplains of all inland waterways (and in coastal areas, for that matter) and establishing green corridors. Politically, though, we’re nowhere even close to being able to make such changes.

  12. All beavers should be captured an made into hats, dagnabbit.

    Regarding musical chairs and mines: In the Twin Cities, in the bluffs of the river, there is a set of old mines originally dug by the company now known as 3M (as in Post-its). I’m convinced 3M has some intense methods for controlling press. A few years back as the first responders were removing a bunch of dead teanagers from one of the mines, the word “mine” and “3m” were used once or twice when first reporting the story, but quickly the press switched to “cave” — there are some natural caves as well, but these teen agers had suffocated in the mines, not the caves, which remain open.

  13. @bob: Well, some types of farms are traditionally established on flood plains. I don’t know if there’s a good case for removing such farms. As for everyone else – developers like to sell a “waterside view” (and you can’t get any closer than having the water in your living room). Also, flood plains tend to be tempting to develop on because they’re so nice and flat. In Australia I see developments going up on flood plains all the time and I tell people they’re fucking morons because it’s so obvious it’s a flood plain (and there is always ample evidence of the last floods and how high they got etc, even if no one remembers a flood). Unfortunately people believe that (a) it hadn’t flooded there in the past 20 years so it must be OK, and (b) they can always build drainage ditches. People refuse to believe how big and expensive appropriate ditches (plus pumping stations) would be. In other areas which *have* been flooded, the government is wasting money putting in insufficient drainage – I guess it’s just to pretend like they’re doing something useful. I remember one tragedy in the mid-1990s in Australia; I had been to the site one year and commented about some absolutely stupid civil works – a road was essentially built that would act like a dam and it was pretty obvious there was a large collecting area too. I was expecting water to accumulate, knock out the road, and run right through a ski resort. That all happened the next year; people tell me that some folks had been complaining about the road for many years but the attitude had always been “nothing bad’s happened yet so it must be OK”. Another favorite of mine is building over dried creek beds – since it’s dry it’s obvious that there’s no creek there anymore (*rolls eyes*).

  14. There is a subdivision in the Mississippi River Flood Plain in Illinois, near St Louis. It gets developed in periods of drought. Houses already there have the basements filled with sand to keep the water from crushing them. All have sump pumps pumping water out into the street gutters. Last time I was there, in a dry period, two new houses were under construction at the wettest end of the street.

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