A Stimulus Plan for Seafood: Tear Down Those Dams

The ruins of the Industrial Revolution block rivers and streams throughout the Northeast—leaving 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 projects—new 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 world—particularly the underwater part of it—my 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 for deconstruction.

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 history—a 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 package—one that leaves room to correct the mistakes of the past.

Image: InAweofGod'sCreation/flickr