A Stimulus Plan for Seafood: Tear Down Those Dams
By Paul Greenberg
Jul 25 2011,
The ruins of the Industrial Revolution block rivers and streams
throughout the Northeastï¿½leaving fisheries in ruins, too
As the fight over the debt ceiling rages on and feeble talks of bad
compromises make Americans feel ever more underwater, the Obama policy
that has been cast in a particularly bad light has been the 2009
stimulus package. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey went so far
as to call the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act a "concept
without substance." The Obama Administration has rebuffed critics by
saying that the package put tens of billions of dollars to use on
"shovel ready" construction projectsï¿½new roads, new homes, anything a
person might take a hammer and nails to.
But as we reach the zenith of stimulus funding and I find myself
looking back over what was spent and what was built, I can't help but
disagree with both Republicans and Democrats. True, as an advocate for
the natural worldï¿½particularly the underwater part of itï¿½my
perspective is skewed against building up any more of what I perceive
as an already overbuilt America. But I'd like to advocate for one
stimulus project that would unquestionably stimulate things. With the
few dollars of funding that remain, I'd like to put in my two cents
Throughout the United States, there are tens of thousands of dams that
today serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Most of them were built
on streams and rivers during the Industrial Revolution, providing
mechanical hydropower to textile mills and other private
manufacturers, primarily in the Northeast. But as manufacturing moved
away from New England during the 20th century, many of the companies
that built and maintained these dams went bankrupt. Unfortunately,
when they closed up shop they left their stream barriers in place.
While these dams were once a way of building up the American economy,
today they represent a tremendous force pulling it down. Dams, even
when they no longer serve industry, continue to do one pernicious
thing very effectively: block the passage of fish to and from the sea.
The most famous seagoing river fish affected by dams were salmon, and
once upon a time the major rivers of the Northeast teemed with them.
The Connecticut River alone may have supported an annual run in excess
of 40,000 10- to 30-pound Atlantic salmon every year. Today, all that
is, so to speak, lox no longer under the bridge.
And salmon represent just a tiny percentage of the sea-run, or
"diadromous," fish that could be recovered should non-power-producing
dams be removed. Principal to river ecosystems are shad, eels,
alewives, and other smaller fish that yearly make the run either from
salt to fresh or fresh to salt. These "forage" fish are the short-term
credit of marine ecology. Practically everything eats them, from
delicious white-fleshed striped bass to tasty summer flounder to
thousand-pound bluefin tuna. Remove them from the ecosystem, and you
are depriving the fish we love most of their best source of protein.
Return them, and you have the potential to increase the biotic wealth
of the ocean profoundly. Imagine the value to the American economy of
a fisheries sector producing surpluses rather than running deficits.
The reasons for dam removal go beyond just saving fish. Not only would
it provide much-needed jobs in the construction industry, but
according to Steve Gephard at the Connecticut Department of Energy and
Environmental Protection, the outdated dams of the Industrial
Revolution are "ticking time bombs." After mills went bankrupt in the
last century, the dams they serviced were no longer maintained. Many
are out of compliance with safety standards. In one relatively small
storm in October, 2006, 20 dams failed in Connecticut alone. If a
Katrina-sized hurricane were to hit the Northeast, as many
climatologists believe is increasingly likely, the resulting damage to
property and human life could be extreme.
Finally, the argument for dam removal has a certain poetic justice.
Even if most people agree that the Ur-stimulus package of Roosevelt's
New Deal was beneficial to American people, it was devastating to
American fish. The Roosevelt Administration was marked by one of the
greatest dam-building sprees in American historyï¿½a spree that ruined
as much or more fish habitat in a decade as all of the other dam
building did in the previous two centuries. The Bonneville Dam on
Washington and Oregon's Columbia River, built in 1938, represents one
of the greatest tragedies of American fisheries: It reduced a run of
15 million coho and chinook salmon to a mere wisp of what it had been.
True, nobody today could realistically hope to take down the
Bonneville, or any other dam that produces non-petroleum-based energy.
But if the big power-generating dams of the West must stay, it seems
only fair to fish that the useless dams of the East should go.
Deconstruction might sound more befitting of a French intellectual
than an American engineer. But the next time we think about
stimulating the economy, it should be a thinking person's packageï¿½one
that leaves room to correct the mistakes of the past.
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