A Canoe In Singing Waters

Not long ago, it seemed all wild streams would soon be dammed. Now, instead of mourning the death of America’s free-flowing rivers, communities are celebrating the resurrection of trout streams, canyons, rapids, and riffles
Researchers examine the physical and ecological changes caused by dam removal on the Baraboo River. Photo courtesy Martin Doyle

Wisconsin sits right in the middle of the continent, but it is also an intensely watery place, with over 40,000 miles of creeks, streams, rivers, lakes, and water passages called flowages. When European Americans settled Wisconsin in the 19th century, they put these waterways to work, and the state now has about 3,800 dams.

But “Wisconsin's dams are showing their age,” says Helen Sarakinos of the River Alliance of Wisconsin. “There are more and more dams that people cannot afford to repair and maintain. It's a growing infrastructure crisis,” she explains. So dams in Wisconsin have been coming down.

Wisconsin is not alone. As former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt observed, “We have been building, on average, one dam a day, every day since the Declaration of Independence.” There are over 75,000 dams on the Army Corps of Engineers‚ National Inventory of Dams, which includes only dams over six feet tall. But the nation's dam building peaked in the 1970s, and since 1998, according to the World Commission on Dams, the rate of decommissioning dams in the United States has overtaken the rate of construction. With 108 dams removed since 1955, 57 of those since 1990, Wisconsin leads the nation in dam removal.

Curious to see some of this activity, I visited Wisconsin in July 2000 and canoed stretches of two rivers that were flowing freely for the first time in over a century. One of them, the Baraboo River, flows through glacier-carved hills in south-central Wisconsin. Dam building began on the Baraboo in the 1830s, and 11 dams once blocked the river's mainstem. In 2000, just two dams remained. Today there are none. All 120 miles of the Baraboo's mainstem and 350 to 400 miles of tributary streams are now open to migratory fish and other aquatic species.

My guide to the Baraboo was John Exo, natural resource educator with the University of Wisconsin Extension Service. Along with a group gathered for a river awareness event, we paddled part of the river freed by that winter's removal of the nearly 160-year-old Oak Street Dam in the city of Baraboo. The new current pushed at our boats. Rocks once submerged by the dam's impoundment had surfaced and vegetation was beginning to cover the newly exposed riverbanks. The Baraboo was again a river and not a “lake,” as people often call the slack water behind a dam.

“There's a growing culture of people who make it a regular part of their lives to get on the river,” Exo says. Several new businesses catering to paddlers and anglers have opened locally and are succeeding beyond their initial expectations.

The sediment that had accumulated behind the Baraboo dams—all removed between 1998 and 2001 because repair and maintenance were not cost effective—is now washing away, uncovering the naturally rocky river bottom. With the river flowing freely, water quality has improved dramatically. No longer slowed in impoundments, the river is becoming hospitable habitat for aquatic insects like caddis flies and mayflies that feed an increasing number and diversity of native fish. Before dam removal, fish that tolerated sluggish and poor quality water, like carp and bullhead, dominated in the Baraboo. Species that need cooler, swifter water—small-mouth bass, walleye, and a growing number of lake sturgeon—are now taking their place, a change appreciated by local anglers.

In July 2000, I also canoed part of the Prairie River freed 10 months before by removal of the Ward Paper Mill Dam in the central Wisconsin city of Merrill. The river had been dammed since the early days of Wisconsin statehood to power sawmills and later a paper mill. The last mill had closed, and its dam, cracked and no longer properly licensed, was rated a “high hazard” by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The owner, International Paper, wanted to sell the property but could not find a new owner willing to assume responsibility for the repair. Removal was clearly the practical course of action. But Merrill's residents, particularly those with waterfront homes, were devoted to the millpond and fiercely opposed to removal of the dam.

The Prairie River, known for its trout fishing, now flows entirely undammed. Paddling, we saw great blue herons, kingfishers, a harrier, a horned owl, and a bald eagle. With the dam gone, there is now plentiful food for fish-eating birds. The freshly exposed riverfront had been seeded with rye grass and was beginning to green up. Wildflowers, rushes, and sedges lined the banks under a canopy of oak, birch, hemlock, pine, and ash.

When I asked Helen Sarakinos how Merrill's stretch of the Prairie River was doing now, she sent me an article from a local paper describing the planned 99-acre riverfront park devoted to “low-impact, silent sport recreation.” There will be fishing piers, trails, canoe landings, and an outdoor education center. With state grant money, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recently completed restoration work here to improve trout and wetland habitat. Community opposition to the removal has turned to support.

“It was a matter of getting the visual imagery,” says Dan Wendorf of the Merrill Parks and Recreation Department who helped build support for the project by going house-to-house showing homeowners sketches of the new park.

Given the community's initial negative response to the dam's removal, this turnaround is remarkable. “If this one can wind up with a happy ending, any one can,” says Sarakinos, alluding to the contentiousness most dam removal efforts provoke.

Dam removal contradicts many Americans' notions of progress. From colonial days on, dams have facilitated the growth of industry, agriculture, commerce, and settlement. Questioning the value of a dam means readjusting our notion of progress. It also means relearning what a river is and how to live with one not controlled by locks and reservoirs.

“It's a great leap of faith to go from open water lake to stream, and people tend to like the status quo,” says Meg Galloway, state dam safety engineer with Wisconsin‘s Department of Natural Resources.

As communities in Wisconsin have discovered, maintaining and operating an older dam and bringing it up to current safety and environmental standards often costs more than the revenue yielded by its hydropower. Similarly, all across the country, communities are identifying marginal dams and questioning the relicensing of dams whose environmental and social impacts are too costly.

There is no official government tally of dam removals, but the non-profit organization American Rivers reports close to 500 dams removed in the U.S. since 1912 —over half of them in the last 20 years. As of January 2000, dams had been removed or removals planned in over 40 states and the District of Columbia. After Wisconsin, the most dams have been removed in Pennsylvania, California, and Ohio.

“Dam removal is still controversial at the community level” even in Wisconsin, cautions Meg Galloway. Public safety and economics, not environmental activism, are the primary reasons so many Wisconsin dams are coming down, she notes, and there's more funding for removing dams that threaten public safety than for dam repair. In what Helen Sarakinos calls “a novel and encouraging sign,” some Wisconsin communities are assessing their dams proactively, considering their options before removal becomes urgent.

“These are wise economic decisions that generate benefits for the river and the community,” says Sarakinos. In her experience, once a dam is out and people start reconnecting with the river, the community begins to take pride in the resulting environmental good. Merrill, where opposition to dam removal was nearly unanimous, is a perfect example. With a restored trout stream, bird rich wetlands, and a new park in the works, Dan Wendorf calls the results “a wonderful opportunity.”

“One of the things we've learned,” says Sarakinos, “is that this is about people. And you can't shortcut that process.”

Dam removal alone cannot solve all of a river's problems, but it's an important step in the ongoing process of river restoration. Where dams have come out, rivers' natural conditions have begun to return. As communities in every region of the country can learn from those in Wisconsin, while these changes may be daunting—even scary—to contemplate, they can also bring unanticipated benefits.

Home from Wisconsin, I reread the “Wisconsin” section of Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac: “It … seems likely that the remaining canoe-water on the Flambeau, as well as every other stretch of wild river in the state, will ultimately be harnessed for power,” wrote Leopold in the mid-1940s. “Perhaps our grandsons, having never seen a wild river, will never miss the chance to set a canoe in singing waters.” Wouldn't Leopold be gratified to know that some of these rivers are now being set free?

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