Dirtying the water


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There’s not much Man can do to stop a Katrina … but if Man had not tampered with the wetlands south of New Orleans and if Man had not built in a flood plain, well, maybe Katrina would not have caused as much misery as it did.
That’s just one example of the unintended consequences of messing with the planet’s water supply. It’s fact that the total planetary water resource is finite -what we have is what we have. No new water ever is created and none is lost. It just gets redistributed, sometimes with dire results – either too much or not enough.
There is a famous cartoon from the Arkansas Gazette by the late George Fisher that shows a couple of Corps of Engineers colonels on a bluff above a flood plain where draglines are busily channelizing a river. One says to the other, “God would have done it if he’d had the money.”
The Corps is not the only villain in the long list of crimes against water, but it deserves considerable discredit. In Missouri the Osage River was ripe for damming back in the 1960s. Flood control, cried the proponents.
Truman Dam, patriotically named for Missouri’s own president, created a huge lake which provides lake entertainment for those who cherish lake entertainment. It also resulted in downstream flooding during periods of high water release (how strange for a flood control dam) and in 1978 it created the largest recorded fish kill in Missouri history.
An estimated 422,000 fish died in the turbulent wash below the dam, including many large paddlefish. The lake also flooded all known spawning areas for the paddlefish, an ancient fish that grows to huge size (the Missouri record is 139 pounds, four ounces). The Osage had the largest population of paddlefish in the United States and was equaled at the time only by a similar population in China.
China’s Three Gorges Dam has been called the largest construction project in history. It has disrupted and displaced the lives of 1.24 million people, not to mention the environmental costs which are huge.
Paddlefish in the Yangtze River already had been hammered by another dam that blocked upstream migration for spawning and wild fish may now be extinct.
There is a water story everywhere in the country. And most are underreported. Wetland drainage in the prairie pothole region? Happens every time there is a wet cycle. Duck numbers plummet because of a lack of nesting and roosting habitat.
Anadromous fish interruption because of dams? Check the Northwest where salmon runs face concrete barriers. Ditto the Northeast. Trout Unlimited’s presentation at the 2009 OWAA conference highlighted the resuscitation of the Penobscot River after removal of two dams. But dam removal is a whole lot harder than building one in the first place.
Years ago the Corps finished eliminating the White River in Missouri (it had been the pioneer river for float fishing) by clogging it with Table Rock Dam. And then trout in Lake Taneycomo, a narrow river/lake below the dam, began to die. Culprit was low-oxygen water surging from Table Rock.
Dr. James Whitley, chief of the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Fisheries Research Section and the man who identified the low-oxygen problem when others hadn’t seen it, testified at a hearing that was looking for remedies. He was asked what his ideal solution would be and he said, “Blow up the dam.” That didn’t go over well with the politicos, but Jim, a true genius, was only half-kidding.
Dams are only one water problem. Channelization is a true horror when it comes to fish and wildlife. Pristine rivers, with bends, pools, riffles and streamside vegetation become sterile ditches, often devoid of trees and shrubs that offer both shade and bank stabilization. The ditches do just what any thinking person would expect them to do – they pass your flood along to your downstream neighbor. But, hey, you can grow more corn and beans, right up to the ditch edge.
The ultimate consequence of channelization happened in 1993 when the Missouri River, ditched for barge traffic (which has been heavily subsidized by taxpayers for more than 100 years) entertained two 500-year floods in two weeks. The result was $15 billion in damages on the Missouri and Mississippi, misery, heartbreak and dislocation for thousands.
Our family helped clean up an old folks retirement villa in a small town in central Missouri, and it was so sad to see what little these retirees had completely destroyed by the muddy, foul floodwaters. Family photos and their best, probably burial, clothing ruined. One frail lady stood in the slime-covered front yard of her former home and said, “When can I go back?” I turned away with wet eyes because I knew that the answer was “Never.”
There is a water story wherever you live and all outdoor communicators should be seeking it out. We are water – the most muscle-bound bodybuilder still is more water than anything else. Without it we die; mishandle it and we suffer and maybe die. On a more pertinent level for outdoor communicators, water health is mandatory for the health of our profession. Fish and wildlife must have water to thrive, just as we do.
Clean water … I’ll drink to that! ◊
joel-vance-clr-mugJoel Vance is a freelance writer, book author and columnist. He is a past president and historian of OWAA and a recipient of the Ham Brown, Excellence in Craft and Circle of Chiefs awards. He writes from Russellville, Mo.


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