What's the dam problem?
1. Out, damn dam!
2. Undamming the Boo River
3. Dunking the dinky dams
4. Making sense of dam removal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Baraboo example
Fortunately for us, the Baraboo River, where three dams have been junked since 1998, is just north of Why-File headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin. No dummies, we opted to motor north for some mid-winter riverine rubber-necking. Our guide, Joe Van Berkel, the Sauk County conservationist, helped persuade Baraboo that the three dams inside city limits had outlived their usefulness.

screen shot of man talking: Video shows Van Berkel talking, overlaid with scenes from the river Do opponents ever change their mind about dam removal? Click 'n learn...Video courtesy David Tenenbaum. (1MB video).

Convincing the city to dump the dams involved a lot of tongue-wagging and jaw-flapping. Dam removal, says Van Berkel, is "a long and difficult process. You have a lot of .... opinions and attitudes to overcome." Change, he notes, is "difficult for people, and it is a major change."

Baraboo, located on a steep stretch of the Baraboo River, once had five of the 11 dams that at one time blocked the main stem of the Baraboo River, Van Berkel says. In 1994, the Waterworks dam, in the center of town, flunked a safety inspection, and the city confronted a repair bill that headed north from $694,000 . The alternative, a dam removal, was pegged at a comparatively cheap $214,000.

The possibility of letting the river run free lured the River Alliance of Wisconsin into the picture, and a small group of locals began advocating river liberation. In 1998, back hoes and pneumatic hammers destroyed the Waterworks dam. In the next few years, two more dams in the city were wrecked, plus another at LaValle, 40 miles upstream. Today, 120 miles of Baraboo River runs free, courtesy of what Van Berkel describes as the longest river restoration project in the United States.

still from video shows light on the river:Video shows Van Berkel talking, overlaid with scenes from the river. The dam's been here 100 years. Why whack it? Joe Van Berkel, Sauk County conservationist, talks about public attitudes about dam removal. Video courtesy David Tenenbaum. (1,016K video).

Immediate gratification
The results, says Van Berkel, were quick and dramatic. The first high water washed away accumulated sediment, plants quickly grew on the exposed river banks, and native fish returned to the rapids that again flowed through the center of town. Within a year, he says, most opponents realized that scare stories about the river drying up in summer were just scare stories.

When the idea was first proposed, city administrator Karl Frantz says "there was some consternation. The elected officials were pretty solidly behind it, but they had to have a stiff upper lip, because people were concerned about what the river was going to look like, whether it would be reduced to a trickle." By now, the river has won over those opponents, he adds. "Those concerns have been put to rest. I've not talked to really anybody who feels it was a bad idea."

Three people stand over a barrel poised above the water in a stream. A jug of chemicals sits on top of the barrel.
To study stream chemistry near a deteriorating dam in the Baraboo River watershed, river ecologist and University of Wisconsin-Madison limnologist Emily Stanley (left), and students Cailin Huyck Orr (center) and Della Hansmann prepare to release a chemical drip into Boulder Creek. Photo by Jeff Miller, University Communications.

Good and bad, but not ugly
As we'll see shortly, information on dam removal is surprisingly thin, and scientists seized on the Baraboo removals as a source of hard data. Matthew Catalano, a fish researcher with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, used an "index of biotic integrity" to rank the river's overall environmental quality. Before removal, the presence of pollution-tolerant fish like common carp gave the dammed stretches an index of 25 to 50 (poor to fair).

Within two years of removal, the index reached 75 to 80 near two of the dam sites. "There was a general improvement from fair-to-poor, to excellent, due to the presence of species [such as smallmouth bass] that require high quality conditions," says Catalano. "That's quite dramatic."

Near a third dam, however, the index improved only marginally. Why the difference? Catalano suspect it's either due to the slower water flow at the third dam, or the more recent removal (October, 2001). In general, Catalano says, the data "shows that these systems are pretty resilient, and can begin to return quickly" to what he presumes were pre-dam conditions. Before: a big dam has tall concrete legs and a steel frame across the top; after: river flows with ripples through a wetland, with trees in the background.

More than 50 dams, none functional, remain in the river's watershed. Photos from River Alliance of Wisconsin & American Rivers.

Because the longest data concerns just five years of change, however, Catalano cannot say if conditions have stabilized: "This is a quick snapshot, but we know you can have different recovery patterns among the dam sites, depending on what type of habitat you have. The rate may be different, and the end result may be different."

Dollars over the dam
To the Baraboo business community, the dam removal may be less about bass than bucks. Being noticed as a leader in environmental restoration has helped the city, says Van Berkel, who recently showed Japanese visitors the effects of restoration.

The economics of the dilapidated riverfront, where dams once powered mills that ground grain and sawed lumber, are brightening. For years, half-a-million visitors have toured Circus World Museum, the old winter quarters of the Ringling Bros. Circus. The museum straddles the river.

With Circus World bringing the crowds, and the river luring canoeists and kayakers, it's suddenly conceivable that cafes, restaurants and bars may open in the riverfront's historic banks, warehouses and hotels.

Should dam removal become a trend?

   
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