Bigfoot, dams and environmental newsworthiness

Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

By Eric Freedman

When I turned on my laptop shortly after 6:15 a.m. on Friday, there was a breaking news story on my CNN homepage about Tropical Storm Karen threatening the Gulf Coast.

The homepage also had links to these other environment-related and science-related stories: “Deadly hornets are world’s largest,” “Roman skulls unearthed in London” and “Dinosaur’s fossilized tail found,” plus video links to “Great white sharks munch on whale” and “Does this video show a snoozing Bigfoot?” You may debate whether Bigfoot, a/k/a Sasquatch, counts as a topic of science rather than of myth, imagination or delusion, but science is one of the options, unlikely as that might sound.

It was the start of my second day at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Chattanooga, and an indication of what’s on the minds of environmental journalists as newsworthy these days.

Beyond natural disasters, dinosaurs, ancient civilizations, homicidal insects, ravaging fish and legendary creatures–all obviously on the minds of CNN’s journalists–the SEJ conference programhighlights other issues that regularly make the headlines: Climate change, of course. Fracking, unsurprisingly. Alternative fuels and nuclear power, logically. Biodiversity and endangered species, certainly. Sustainable cities and communities, as expected.

All of them–well, perhaps all but Bigfoot–are relevant in the Great Lakes region, although we are more apt to find mammoth and mastodon bones than those of dinosaurs or ancient Romans.

But the portfolio of topics and issues runs far deeper and wider. “What makes `green buildings’ really green?” “Combined sewer overflow: The gift that keeps on polluting.” “More than numbers: Population, environment and human rights.” “Biomimcry and biophilic cities: What can nature teach us about sustainability?” “Flooding, drought and water wars.” And more.

Those topics also resonate for those of us who live in the Great Lakes Basin.

The conference provides us with opportunities to get beyond the facile and predictable in reporting, to mull over nuances and potential unintended consequences.

Consider the controversy over removing thousands of dams, an issue dominated by what one session’s moderator described as “big, charismatic dams” in the Pacific Northwest. All in all, the panelists agreed, removing obsolete, unsafe, uneconomical or unneeded dams is a healthy thing for America’s stream and rivers.

In Michigan, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) says most of the state’s almost 2,400 dams–74 percent of them under private ownership–“were built decades ago and many have deteriorated due to age, erosion, poor maintenance, flood damage and poor designs. Those dams that no longer make sense, that stand in disrepair, or are not removed are at significant risk of failure, particularly during high flow events.”

The state’s Dam Management Program has provided grants for some dam removal projects, including ones in Grand Traverse (Boardman River), Ionia (Grand River), Shiawassee (Shiawassee River) and Tuscola (Cass River) counties.

Just this summer Ohio officials removed two dams on the Cuyahoga River.

Removing dams improves fish migration–of salmon in the Northwest, for example, and of alewife in Maine–improves water quality and habitat, and enables the distribution of sediments such as silt and sand downstream as “part of the natural process of rivers,” according to Gerrit Jobsis of the advocacy group American Rivers. Removal also reduces the risk to human safety from dams that may collapse and creates recreational opportunities for anglers and kayakers.

The process can be dramatic, as a video shown at the session illustrates. Andy Meser made this time lapse video of the removal of the century-old Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Washington state in 2011.

But as I said, there are nuances and potential unintended consequences. Removal of a dam may inadvertently release contaminants downstream, one journalist noted. An undammed river may become the equivalent of a liquid superhighway for distribution of invasive species. And mistakes or bad luck during the process can create problems. That happened in October 2012 when the Boardman River in Traverse City flooded, swamping 66 downriver homes because of a breach during removal of the Brown Bridge Dam. The affected property owners filed a $6.3 million lawsuit last May against the city and its contractors.

That wasn’t the first time things went awry in Michigan. According to DNR, in 1966, part of what was then a Consumers Energy hydropower dam in Big Rapids was “ improperly removed, causing a massive release of sediment downstream. A remnant portion of the dam 5-feet in height was left in place. This remnant dam posed a safety hazard and contributed to several drowning deaths.” The rest of the dam was removed in 2000-01.

Eric Freedman is the director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.

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