Readers Respond

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A dam issue


/ Linn Grove

I recently read in the Pilot-Tribune that a group called the "Whitewater Coalition" wants to remove low-head dams in Buchanan County. You might say, "That's over in eastern Iowa," and be right. But this dam issue goes deeper than that...

Back in '86, I got involved in the up-grading of the Linn Grove Dam. My position was then, and still is today, that all of the low-head dams in Iowa are too valuable a resource to lose. To the credit of the Buena Vista County Supervisors, the Linn Grove Dam was reapired. Following the flood of '93, the supervisors sought, and got, a grant from FEMA for dam repair, then added funds from the county. Total costs for dam repair exceeded $300,000!

Today, it acts as a magnet for fishermen from at least four states... Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota. The dam is a prime recreational asset to the county, and the state. Untold numbers of fishing licenses have been sold just because the dam is there. Untold amounts of tackle has been purchased to fish below the dam. And untold numbers of memories have been made because of fishing experiences around the dam.

But in '86, the DNR did not want to get involved with the restoration of the Linn Grove Dam simply because if they did, they would admit liability or responsibility in some form for the other 249 low-head dams in Iowa! My concern at that time was to preserve the Linn Grove Dam.

I "goofed" here, by thinking that the other 249-odd low-head dams would be "inviolate" and not subject to attacks from interests other than nature. In retrospect, the fight to save the Linn Grove Dam should have been extended to the other dams. Today, theLittleton Dam across the Wapsipinicon River and the Vernon Springs Dam across the Turkey River are slated for removal, and the remaining dams are in danger.

Every single one of these dams acts as a magnet for fishermen who know that sport fish tend to congregate below them. Many of the river systems on which the dams are located are routinely stocked by the DNR. They provide many of the fishing opportunities for anglers in interior Iowa...

Now, I have no problems with a group of people who want to recreate by canoeing or kayaking down Iowa's rivers. In fact, more should take advantage of the rivers of Iowa and the river corridors. They are the last remaining areas of Iowa that are as close to being "truly wild" as can be found in the state.

But I do have a problem with a small, vocal group trying to inflict their will upon the people of Iowa. Too often, the DNR has listened to special interest groups, "caved in" to their demands, and has made management decisions that had dire impact on natural resources in Iowa. So I cannot dismiss the efforts of a small group to remove a single dam, much less all the dams across all the rivers in Iowa!

Most, if not all the low-head dams in Iowa are special-purpose dams. They were built to provide water-power for grist mills. most date to before 1900. Few if any are used for hydro-electric power today. Some, as in the case of the Linn Grove Dam, are owned by the county in which they were placed, but are subject to easements of record. The potential for hydroelectric power still exists for the Linn Grove Dam!

All of the low-head dams have stilling pools above them, created by the dams. untold acres of wetland would be lost if the dams were removed. Every species of fowl and animal that depends on wetland for survival would be gone if the dams were removed; river otter survival would be gone if the dams were removed... in the spring, wetlands along the rivers of Iowa resound with the calls of Giant Canada geese nesting. I would certainly think that organizations like Ducks Unlimited, who restore wetlands, would have more than a few words to say about the dam removal and the subsequent loss of wetland habitat.

Removing a low-head dam is not a simple thing, as has been suggested by the Whitewater Coalition! Sure, several sticks of dynamite might remove a dam; surplus munitions abound. I'm quite sure the DNR could find some, if needed. But what about the residue left behind? Most if not all of the dams are concrete construction, which means they have reinforcing rods in them. By simply blowing up a dam, the Coalition would create pollution by exposing those rods to oxidation. Further, unless those rods were removed from the water, they would act as an obstacle to canoeing and kayaking. Imagine going down a river "chute" and getting impaled on a reinforcing rod. Who is liable there?

Plus, who is going to pay to have those chunks of concrete removed? In some western states, the cost of dam removal has exceeded the original construction cost by several-fold.

The Coalition is depending on a provision of a Federal flood-mitigation bill for funding, though. In that bill, some $52 million has been made available for "removal and/or restoration"... the Coalition saw the removal part and went no further...

The DNR has to approve any work done on the interior waters of the state; there's two opposing views of dam removal within the DNR! First, some personnel want to provide more recreational opportunities. Second, biologists want to keep exotic fish species present in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers from entering the headwaters of the major interior rivers. While the second viewpoint means the Linn Grove Dam would be "inviolate" for removal, I would not rule it out, eventually! Imagine schools of big-head carp roaming the Iowa Great Lakes.

Further, above each dam located in or near a metro area, there's been significant home and cabin construction. If the dam goes, those properties would be left high and dry, yards away from the river...

The true current value of the dams proposed for removal are memories. I have a memory of catching a smallmouth bass as long as my arm below the Littleton Dam some 55 years ago! I've never caught a smallmouth as big since, and I've fished in 17-odd states over the years, If that dam is removed, so are the future memories... I also have memories of limits of walleye and channel catfish being caught below the Linn Grove Dam.

I've also got to take issue with people who are simply too lazy to portage around a dam. Granted that carrying a canoe or kayak around the dams in downtown Waterloo or Cedar Falls or Des Moines might seem a bit "odd." Or, want to experience the thrill of "white-water experience" in Iowa - without having to pay for it. Can't blame them for trying though.

But if the DNR allows the concept of low-head dam removal to continue. I think every sportsman in Iowa should be highly upset. And especially, if state funds are used for dam removal. Remember, the DNR is charged with "preservation, protection and enhancement," not dam removal.

* Editor's note: The DNR's river corridor expert recently reported that he knows of no plan to remove the Linn Grove Dam. The community support for the site as a recreational resource would make it unlikely that it would be included in any removal plan, he said.