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



Five years ago, if you said you wanted to remove a dam, they looked as if you'd suggested being burned at the stake.


Water under the dam
One surprising aspect of dam removal is the shallowness of the data on its ecological effects. Fish, especially if their migration was blocked by the dam, often recover nicely after removal. But until two years ago, notes river scientist Emily Stanley, only one study of the biological and geological effects of removal had been published. Now, with research groups active in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, dam removal is no longer a monopoly of paddle-wielding Luddites in wooden canoes.

The limited data available to date certainly does not indicate that advocating dam removal will put you in hot water. Indeed, rivers can heal themselves quite rapidly, as witnessed by the extraordinarily fast recovery of fish on the Baraboo.

Below-water view shows silt-covered bottom; above-water shows forest.
Split view above and below Boulder Creek, downstream of a deteriorating dam in the Baraboo, Wis., watershed. The dam was later removed. Photo by Jeff Miller, University Communications.

With positive results on the esthetic, recreational and fishery front, dam removals have surged in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Stanley says, a reflection of changing public attitudes. "Five years ago, if you said you wanted to remove a dam, they looked at you as if you'd suggested being burned at the stake. Now, they say, 'We'll think about it.'"

As dam removal goes from downstream to mainstream, it's even being championed by business types. In Baraboo, Wis., city administrator Karl Frantz points to ripples of interest in economic development along the dilapidated riverfront - a direct response to the river's renewal. The river restoration, he says, "has really directed people to looking at the river, rather than turning their backs to it. ... I think it has given us some energy, a renewed ability to do some redevelopment , to get people thinking more about the river."

Dinky concrete dam is across center of  photo, stream bottom is covered with fine sediment. Lots of rocks are downstream.
Silt sediment accumulated upstream of the Boulder Creek dam. University of Wisconsin-Madison river ecologist Emily Stanley (downstream, at right) is studying the dam's impact on water chemistry and absorption and transport of run-off chemicals. Photo by Jeff Miller, University Communications.

Still, as dam removal threatens to become a flood tide, David Hart, who leads one of the larger groups studying removals, cautions against overselling the benefits or understating the risks, given the level of ignorance -- and the history of river manipulation. Back when large numbers of dams were being built, he says, "The dam builders assured society, 'We know what we are doing.' Let's not make the same mistake with dam removals. We should base them on a good understanding of the science, and if the science is incomplete, let's at least learn from the removals that are taking place."

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