Razing old dams solves some problems, creates new ones

MADISON -- An old joke among river ecologists goes like this: "What does a fish say when it hits a cement wall?" Pause. "Dam!"

Today, fewer fish are banging their heads against these barriers, due in large part to Wisconsin's efforts to tear down dozens of deteriorating dams. Razing these structures may alleviate many wildlife headaches, but it also may create new problems, according to research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Emily Stanley, a river ecologist at UW-Madison's Center for Limnology, has found that dam removal allows not just fish and canoes, but also damaging nutrients, to barge through the water system. Results of the study, which focused on dam removal sites along the Baraboo River and Koshkonong Creek in Wisconsin, are published in the August 2002 issue of the journal BioScience.

Beginning in the mid-1800s, communities nationwide built dams. While these structures generated power, controlled floods and stimulated economic growth, they transformed the ecosystem by blocking the movement of organisms, worsening the water quality and altering downstream flow and channel formation. As Stanley sums up: "Dams do bad things to rivers."

Today, there are nearly 4,000 dams in Wisconsin, and several million can be found throughout the United States. Fewer than 60 rivers in the country retain more than 62 miles of free-flowing channel.

Yet, these numbers are beginning to change: "Many of the dams are getting old," explains Stanley. "Time has taken its toll on these structures and transformed them from productive sites of commerce to safety risks."

Tearing them down, rather than restoring them, may seem like the best option, both environmentally and economically. In fact, 120 dams were razed last year in the United States, and, over the years, more than 60 have been torn down in Wisconsin.

"It's a moment in history to see water flow again for the first time in more than 150 years and to watch fi

Contact: Emily Stanley
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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