Old Dams Will Destroy Us

To save our towns from climate change, we must free our rivers

Paul Greenberg

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Photo by Phillip Flores on Unsplash

This week, as nine inches of rain fell on Vermont in a single day, and citizens of the state’s capital, Montpelier, found themselves waste deep in river water, I was reminded of the time bombs that are ticking all over New England ready to blow. I’m talking about the 10,000+ useless dams left over from the industrial revolution that were simply not built to endure the inundations they will face in the years to come.

And I thought in particular of one success story to the south of Vermont where things are working out much better. I’ll retell the story here.

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.

“People like to think that these old dams somehow provide flood…

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org