Chronicles

To Dam or Not to Dam Part 2
by: Mike Lushington  

By the time you read this, I will have gone and come back from two trips. One of them was with Carla to see our son and his family in Kansas, the other as coach with the biathlon cadets to the Canadian Championships. These trips prompt me to write columns in advance of my departing, so I am tempted to try to find a topic or theme that will allow me to write something of a series. This has been the case with these ruminations on the past, present, and, this week, the possible future of Eel River.

In my first two columns on the subject, I have tried to present an objective view of the river as it was years ago - through the eyes of those who remember it as it was back then - and as it is now. An inescapable conclusion is that life continues to grow, to adapt, and even to thrive in the Eel River ecosystem. Having said that, it is still a fair question to consider what might be the best thing to do for the river to ensure its future.

Eel River is a natural cattail marsh river. That means that it deposits silt along its watercourse each spring and in times of high rain run-off. That silt, in turn, encourages the growth of extensive stands of cattails and other marsh plants. These plants, and the marsh ecosystem itself, provide the best of all natural filtering systems for the water that passes through them. In order to work, though, they need to have the capacity to flush themselves, and that means a free-flowing watercourse. Blocking that watercourse causes backup, siltification (which is simply a question of too much of a good thing in this case), and eutrophication. The last is caused by slowing water down and warming it up, which encourages increased plant life. That plant life, in turn, uses up the oxygen supply of the water, so that creatures that depend on it to exist can no longer do so. The system actually chokes itself.

This is happening now in Eel River. By late summer each year it is almost impossible to thread even a kayak down much of the river. Wander off what is left of the channel and you are very quickly caught up in weeds that have blossomed in the ideal conditions brought about by the diminished current and the blocked outlet. It is safe to say that, left to its own devices, Eel River will pretty much cease to exist as a river within another thirty to forty years; instead it will be a wetland, a swamp, and eventually a field. This, in itself, is a natural process, one that happens whenever beavers, for example, are allowed to maintain their dams over a period of years. However, the creation of such a large dam (relative to what a beaver could build) as is at Eel River Bar hastens the process enormously.

Taking the dam out, on the other hand, will have its consequences as well. I doubt that the river would ever return to its condition of forty or fifty years ago, and however far it makes it back toward that condition will take several years. Still, I think that that is what should happen. I say that as a naturalist who really likes to see things run as they should. I am not certain that the dam itself serves any major positive purpose; its environmental impact on the river, though, has, on balance been rather more negative. maybe I am fantasizing, but I would like to see a salmon run in the river again one day.

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