Wild Waters: I Don’t Much Care For Dams

by Grant A. Mincy

Image from wikipedia: Ocoee Dam No. 3 is a hydroelectric dam on the Ocoee River in Polk County, in the U.S. state of Tennessee. I collected Corbicula below this dam as part of my Masters field work.

Image from wikipedia: Ocoee Dam No. 3 is a hydroelectric dam on the Ocoee River in Polk County, in the U.S. state of Tennessee. I collected Corbicula below this dam as part of my Masters field work.

The 1960’s! The decade has many nicknames. A particularly unfortunate one is “The Golden Age of Dams.”

Plugging river systems effectively destroys the surrounding landscape and its wild inhabitants. The waters that rise behind dams serve as an excuse to sprawl industrialization ever more into the landscape — complete with suburbs, shopping malls, roads, billboards and the age-old tourist activities of drinking beer and riding pontoon boats on the open water. And who can blame the tourists? What a show! A grand lake from out of nowhere. The American government, specifically the Tennessee Valley Authority constructed these concrete barriers. Seems they could do anything — anything but avert natural processes.

With all the planning, politicians and corporate executives could not accurately predict river flow, did not take into account the consequences of a booming populations in territories suffering from resource scarcity (like the desert Southwest) , had no idea of climate change and, through subsides and land grants, totally ignored the true environmental costs of their actions. Today, in the wake exists a human and ecological crisis.

Building dams has many unintentional consequences. One such effect is drastically altering the sediment flow through the river system. Before dams came rivers they carried sediment along the entire length of the system, guaranteeing deposition in larger bodies of water. This process constructs deltas. Today, all the sediment is trapped behind the concrete of dams. This fills reservoirs but starves the downstream areas. This concentration of sediment raises the level of dissolved metals, such as arsenic, manganese and lead (among other known neurotoxins) in the reservoir system, raising public and environmental health concerns. Open river systems allow these metals to flow in a dilute manner without such concerns.

Aside from sediment, dams also prevent water flow further down stream. Where there was once free-flowing water, numerous aquatic plants that served as a sink for the resource, and groundwater reservoirs, the area is now low flow. Local aquatic wildlife populations are eradicated, especially freshwater mussels if they are separated from host fish, and water dependent terrestrial species are lost from the area.

It is important to note, that large-scale industrial projects, like dam construction, are all but impossible on a community basis. By paying true environmental cost, and having to use the resources available at hand (or sourced from the market), natural systems would be exploited in a much more sustainable manner. These heavy infrastructure investments are a direct result of state intervention in the market, complete with heavy subsidies making the price of construction artificially cheap.

So, what to do? Step one tear down the dams. OK, then what?

Input reduction is the best all around solution to all environmental woes. As giant corporations, such as Nestle, tap groundwater reservoirs for water intensive projects, as governments shower water intensive big agriculture with subsidies and as capital increases demand for lush golf courses, giant lakes and continued sprawl into landscapes, commons governance regimes offer redemption.

Efficient use of resources is successfully managed in the commons. Technical changes, such as micro-irrigation, can transport water to crops via pipes as opposed to the open ditches used by industry that encourage evaporation. Most importantly, commons governance would demand liberation from the growth mentality. Instead of encroaching on natural lands, it would serve human interest to invite desert flora back into communities. Xeriscaping is landscaping designed to save water. This includes using native or endemic plants. Pursuing wastewater reclamation, or using gray water to water crops as opposed to freshwater from current municipalities is another conservation mechanism that would develop under common regimes. Environmental cost demands the maximum sustainable use of resources. Under common regimes, common markets will work for the optimal allocation, conservation and preservation of ecosystem services.

When resources are cheap, they will be wasted. State decree offsets the true environmental cost of resource consumption to benefit special interests — profit is privatized as risk and cost is socialized to the greatest extent possible. These projects are not only unsustainable, they are maniacal.

Long live the commons.

Long live wild waters!

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