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  • January 14th, 2014

Dam It Anyway!

By Joel M. Vance

You’ve heard the saying “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”?  The same could be said of the Corps of Engineers, only in reverse with the “taketh” part coming first.

Corps projects often have decimated both wildlife habitat and wildlife.  The famous cartoon by George Fisher in the Arkansas Gazette depicts a couple of Corps engineers, wearing badges reading “keep busy,” atop a bluff, presumably in Arkansas, watching earth movers below busily channelizing a stream.  “This is the way God would have done it,” says one, “if He’d had the money.”

Much of that project money no doubt went to “mitigation,” a euphemism for buying off critics by giving the outraged and dispossessed something allegedly of equal value.  What brought it home to me is a new book by Leland and Crystal Payton called “Damming the Osage.”  It’s a terrific job of reporting the history of one of the Midwest’s most controversial and contentious Corps Projects—Truman Dam on the state’s third largest river behind the Missouri and Mississippi (which have seen their own troubles with Corps tinkering).

On the one hand, Missouri and anglers/boaters got a 55,600-acre lake, highly popular and with good lake fishing.  On the other hand, it lost a river that once carried pioneer explorers like Zebulon Pike to the West.  On one hand Missouri got the economic benefits from a lake which unarguably generates more revenue than a river.  On the other hand, farmers lost their land; environmentalists lost their fight to stop the dam and the dam generated not only electric power for greedy folks, but also generated the largest fish kill in Missouri history (.

But the Corps giveth—in this case 58,133 acres of upland habitat, managed by the Conservation Department for the benefit of hunters and other wildlife benefits.  The Lord….er, the Corps giveth in hopes no one notices what got taken away.   The Corps also manages 50,000 acres for wildlife, including four wetland areas for duck hunting and a permit system for

The lake originally was named Kaysinger Bluff, but in view of the controversy over it, the PR types renamed it for Harry Truman, no doubt hoping that the former President’s increasing popularity would spill over into kind thoughts about a project which has a long string of problems ever since it finished in 1979, including fish kills, downstream flooding (it was built as a flood control dam), dispossessed landowners and destruction of all known spawning grounds for paddlefish, a highly popular trophy fish.

Fortunately fisheries managers at the Conservation Department developed a way to hatch paddlefish and save the fishery by stocking, but it was a near thing.   The dam took more than a decade because of lawsuits and some finagling that at times sounds like a political thriller.  All is documented in the Payton book which has been gathering awards since publication.  The Paytons have a number of other books that they enjoyed writing, but not this one which is far too close to home (Leland Payton was a leader in the losing fight to stop the dam).

The conservation lands around Truman have some of the best quail hunting in the state, not to mention deer, turkeys and other game.  The lake itself is popular with duck hunters who pick a point on the jagged shoreline (950 miles of it) and set up decoys.  The lake still is a lake, not a stream, and you never heard of a lake creating floods, fish kills and otherwise being antisocial.  On the other hand, a river is a living thing, ever restless, ever creative.  Mess with it at  your peril.

Dams are man’s often pitiful attempt to shape nature and often they have unexpected and unwelcome outcomes.  The Corps drowns thousands of acres, booting landowners off property that has been in the family for generations, drowning archeological treasures, destroying wildlife habitat.  But you get “mitigation” acres to make you feel real good.

The era of big dam projects likely is over and perhaps the Corps will return to its original mission of clearing snags out of the Mississippi River.  Or it could work to restore the Missouri River to a semblance of its original course, especially in the 500 miles through Missouri where the river has been channelized to a nine-foot depth by wing dikes and other channel structures.

In 1993 the Missouri went on an epic rampage, washing out levees along its length and making a mockery of a century of channel work.  In the aftermath of the flood landowners who decided to give up the fight against a river that always wins sold out to the Fish and  Wildlife Service and the Missouri Conservation Department to create the Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge and a series of conservation areas open to hunters and anglers.

Once there was a proposal  to build two dams in the Grand Canyon.  The twin powerhouse combination of Western congressmen and their federal government clout plus greedy corporate interests already had built Glen Canyon Dam which created Lake Powell and flooded one of the most beautiful canyons on the face of the earth.   The dam came very close to failing in 1983 when a record snowmelt caused Lake Powell to rise very near overtopping the dam and destroying the spillways.

Had Glen Canyon failed, the resultant flood would have been catastrophic.  It likely would have overwhelmed Hoover Dam, putting out the lights in Las Vegas, and would have devastated California’s Imperial Valley, the state’s most important agricultural area.

Mitigation?  Boaters got a huge lake.  Hydropower flourished.  The only losers were Glen Canyon and those who cherished it, plus the Colorado River downstream of the dam which has seen ecological alteration from capricious water levels and the introduction of alien species like tamarisk trees.  The dam crisis is documented in a wonderful book “The Emerald Mile” by Kevin Fedarko.

Public outrage and pressure from the Sierra Club and other environmentalists stopped the Canyon Dams.  While it wasn’t the Corps who would have been behind the dams, the idea was the same—destruction of a priceless outdoor resource.  How do you mitigate the loss of the Grand Canyon?

The Sierra Club had a history dating back a century in a dam fight—the Hetch Hetchy dam on California’s Tuolumne River, built as a response to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to provide the city with drinking water and, presumably, to fight fires when the next earthquake struck.  The dam flooded nearly 2,000 acres, some of which is within Yosemite National Park and was a glorious natural area.   A hundred years later there’s an ongoing fight to breech the dam and restore the valley to its original state, but that’s unlikely ever to happen.  As for mitigation, how do you compensate for the loss of a priceless natural resource?  Quick answer:  you don’t any more than you would compensate for the loss of the Mona Lisa with a kindergartner’s drawing of a cat.

And if the last sage grouse or lesser prairie chicken flushes into oblivion because of pressure from oil and gas development or construction of the Keystone Pipeline, how do you mitigate their loss?  What’s the pricetag for extinction these days?

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1 Comment

  1. John D. Taylor

    February 1st, 2014 at 8:54 pm


    As usual, a great column, Joel. A great read about the water fights of the West, especially in California is Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert.

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