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Dam Busters – New story by Safina Center Fellow Paul Greenberg

By Safina Center Fellow Paul Greenberg

Dam Busters

A nascent environmental movement is liberating rivers and freeing fish.

In staid New England, if a younger man drives onto the property of an elderly woman and threatens to knock something down, you expect pushback: an argument, a call to the authorities, and the subsequent removal of the man from the premises. But on a cool November morning in Colchester, Connecticut, quite the opposite is occurring. Here, on the banks of a midsized watercourse called the Jeremy River, Steve Gephard, a fisheries biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environment Protection, has arrived with Sally Harold of the Nature Conservancy and a backhoe-mounted jackhammer. They direct workmen to rip down a dam on the property of 84-year-old Yankee matriarch Nan Wasniewski. As the jackhammer bashes through the concrete, and water begins flowing unimpeded downstream for the first time in almost three centuries, Wasniewski, dressed in a crisp blue windbreaker, can only shake her head at the spectacle. She sold the dam to the town for a dollar. In return, she earned the chance to bring a river back to life.

The oddball demolition team of Gephard, Harold, and Wasniewski came about as part of a nascent environmental movement to free America’s rivers from the scourge of dams. In New England, this effort is subtle and often invisible to the larger community. Indeed, most of the dam fights that garner public attention focus on giant Pacific waterways—the mighty Columbia River and its Grand Coulee Dam, for instance—that were impounded and robbed of their salmon during the Great Depression era of public works.

But the rivers and fish that may have suffered the greatest damage from dams are modest in size and distributed up and down North America’s Atlantic coast. In Connecticut alone, where I watch the dam busting on the Jeremy River, there are over 4,000 dams. Across greater New England and on into Canada there are upward of 50,000—no one really knows the exact number. This chockablock arrangement of impediments has decimated not just iconic species such as Atlantic salmon and sturgeons but the equally important little fishes, including river herring, shad, and American eel. These small fishes—which are keystone species, critical to aquatic food chains—once spawned in coast rivers in the billions. Now, they are largely erased from modern memory in the region.

And the worst part of it all is that most of these dams serve no purpose today. Like abandoned fishing nets—“ghost nets”—set loose from a sunken fleet, they kill and cripple on behalf of masters that disappeared long ago.

Read this rest of this article in Hakai Magazine, published online on April 4, 2017. 

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