Removing Dams: The Good, the Bad, and the Messy

“Set the river free” is a cry heard more and more often. It started in New England, when old, unused water diversions and containment structures were removed, often for good reasons, from smaller streams. The goal was to let the stream or river return to as close to original as possible, or to prevent a dam failure and the subsequent floods and damage. If the thing doesn’t serve a purpose, and might even have become a hazard, why not take it out? And again, in some cases, it made good sense. In other cases people took sediment samples from behind the dam and said, “Hold up a second! We don’t want this in the river.” And so the dam stays for now.

However, there’s a difference between a little mill-dam or a small diversion on a stream in what has reverted to forest, and a good-sized power dam, or flood control structure. And you can’t just “rip it out and let the river heal.” Depending on the dam, the river, and what’s down stream, that can lead to disaster, at least for the very aquatic life that people are trying to save/reintroduce.

So, a quick primer on what happens behind the dam when the water flow is greatly slowed or stopped. A large puddle forms, growing into a pond or lake. If the river carries lots of sediment (silt, sand), then the heaviest of that begins to settle out into the bottom of the lake. As the lake fills, the weight on the ground increases, as does pressure on the dam and the sides of the lake. If excitement is going to happen, this is when the first signs appear (Teton Dam is the horrible warning). A little seepage is pretty common, and should be clear. If muddy water starts appearing on the wrong side of the dam, then Things Need to Be Done. If all goes as planned, a lake fills in behind the dam. Hydropower dams use the pressure of that water to turn turbines that generate electricity, so they are always releasing water, or do so intermittently to meet peak demand. Irrigation dams draw-down water levels in the dry season for farmers to use, then allow levels to rise again in the wet. Recreational dams hold water at all times, unless there is a compelling reason to release water (controlled flooding as opposed to uncontrolled “it ate the dam!!!” flooding. See Johnstown for the horrible warning.)

Over time, if the stream carries enough silt, the lake might just turn into a mudflat with a waterfall on one end. That is very, very rare, at least in the modern era. You can see it with ancient structures in Arabia and a few other places. Eventually the dam wears away and you have to look very carefully to see that a water control structure ever existed. Most modern US dams have a life-time of about a century or so before something needs to be done about the silt, it silt deposition is a problem. Something like Hoover Dam or Glen Canyon? Not such a problem.

So, let’s say you want to tear out a mill-dam on a rocky stream that never had much sediment. You do a core check of what’s behind the dam, find nothing toxic and no huge slugs of sediment, and decide to get rid of the structure. Some sludge and gunk will flow downstream, so ideally you allow a slow release and everything keeps going until the sediment reaches the sea (or the next lake downstream) and you have a nicely restored river. You are happy, the land owners are happy, and the fish are happy. Good deal.

However, let’s say you look at a dam downstream of an industrial area. It needs to go. So you take a core of the yards’-deep sediment behind the dam and Whhoooooooah Nellie! Arsenic, dyes, lead enough to rearm the Ottoman Empire, and a few other things have accumulated. Do you really want that going downstream and settling all over the stream? Probably not. The better thing to do is to lower the dam, allowing increased flow-through but still keeping that “stuff” penned up and out of circulation until someone decides they want to pay for the removal and remediation.

So, what if there’s been no, zip, nada industrial development in the area, ever. Your core comes out clean, but full of sticky, silty, sludge. The flow in the stream is not what it used to be, for a number of reasons. If you rip out the dam, it will take a very, very long time for that material to get through the stream. Most likely, the stream will aggrade, getting shallower and wider, leaving the sediment over the current bed. It can also cause the shallower water to be warmer for a while, until the balance starts to return after more sediment is carried downstream. If you have really good trout fishing downstream, this is probably not the scenario you want. Now you start talking about dredging out the stuff, taking it somewhere else, and then opening the dam after the water settles again. $$$,$$$,$$$.00 can be involved.

So, OK, what if we just rip out Hoover, or Grand Coulee? Well, first, where is that electricity going to come from? Nuclear is the only close replacement, because wind and solar are not going to work. Second, that will be an enormous slug of very, very cold water racing down the Colorado River valley and taking a lot of stuff with it. Like downstream dams and diversions. Like any water-supply intakes. The fish will be in for a surprise with that temp, although the modern Colorado is far colder than it once was. And eventually the sediment will start to move, slowly, and you will get back to closer to the old Colorado, brown, wild or sluggish, and meandering. If you get/got drinking water from downstream of Hoover, well, buy a lot of filters and plan on changing them regularly. And get ready for floods, as the bed, once scoured, starts to rebuild with that sediment.

Did I mention floods? Annual or semi-annual floods will return. Any valuable infrastructure will have to be relocated, or turned sacrificial. You’re going to lose habitat for some creatures and gain it for others. Given the sediment that’s built up behind the dams of the 1910s-1950s, anything that needs a rocky bed with well-oxygenated water might have difficulty for a while, depending on how quickly the sediment is redistributed and filtered out as the balance in the stream resumes.

Note: All these are controlled removals. Nightmare fuel is if one of the big dams on the Colorado goes all at once, because then the downstream dams will likely go as well. The Colorado will reach the sea again, perhaps by a different route. Or it might refill the Salton Sea and a few other areas, then head out via LA or even double back and then go out to Baja. The loss of life would be tremendous, the loss of infrastructure eve more so.

So dam removal can be done, and done right. However, “rewilding the Columbia and the Colorado!” is probably an undertaking best left to fiction writers for now. Until nuclear reactors become far more common, and we know a lot more about what’s behind those structures and how to release the contents slowly, we could do far more harm to the environment than we ever did by building the dam.


Spring is Springing

After six inches of snow, with screaming north winds as a chaser (as in, blew down a veterinary clinic in a small town, tipped over portable buildings, sent lawn furniture into another state the long way) the wind stopped, the sun shone, and people with kids and spouses chased them out of the house.

As I set out on my walk, thee or four dog-walkers were out and about with one or more charges on the leash. “Amble” seemed the pace of choice, and I passed a few as I strode along. Kids played basketball on other things in yards and on driveways. I could hear the chaos of soccer practice from one park. Twenty minutes or so later, as I got closer to another park, the “clang” of a softball bat meeting ball rang out. The wind was light, and brought the sound up the block.

Two-thirds of the park-park (as opposed to school-grounds-treated-as-a-park) had kids playing, chasing balls, swinging bats, or just doing kid things. Smaller children covered the playground equipment. Adults coached, cheered, rescued stuck toddlers, or just walked around the park, with or without dogs. Several folks with houses facing the park had cars or other projects out and worked on them, occasionally tossing back a stray little-kid ball. It’s been quite a while since good weather and no-restrictions combined, and so people were making the most of it.

In other words, the scene was absolutely normal. Blessedly normal. Kids were kids, dogs played in doggy ways, and adults smiled at both. As the sun sank closer to the western horizon, the teams folded their gear and departed, the dog-walkers went home, and hints of rose and gold appeared in the sky as wispy cirrus feathers caught the first hint of sunset. Long shadows became solid twilight, and house lights flickered on one at a time, here and there. The air cooled, even as I pushed uphill toward home. The day birds settled into their roosts, while a hint of an owl’s call reached my ears. The air smelled dry, but not dangerously so, laced here and there with smoker scent (oak and mesquite), and the perfume of a burnt meat offering.

The kids were all inside, and garage doors closing when I reached RedQuarters. True twilight darkened the sky, and one last hawk flapped overhead, headed for his evening’s repose. The wind murmured out of the south, not too strong yet. The first star of evening appeared, oh so faintly, if I looked to the side. The night shift had begun.

Cabbaging onto a New Leaf

It is one of those phrases I never think about until someone else boggles. I was talking about maps and navigational charts, and observed that I had possessed one for the area under discussion, “but a student cabbaged onto it and I haven’t gotten a current one.” The instructor blinked hard, and observed that my dialect and my accent did not match. And added that he understood the meaning, but had never heard “cabbage” used as a verb.

When I was growing up, at least within the Red family, “to cabbage onto” something was to steal, often by borrowing and somehow never returning it. I never thought about it being somewhat unusual. “Took a cotton to her,” is common in the US South, or was. “Turn over a new leaf,” even though it didn’t refer to plants. But “to cabbage?” Apparently it is a Midwesternism, found in Nebraska and parts of the Dakotas. Now, these are states settled by people who grew and stored and consumed large amounts of cabbage as part of their native cuisines (Germans, Bohemians, Scandinavians, Irish, Poles, Mennonites and Hutterites). So my guess is that cabbage theft was known, and disapproved of, and so “to cabbage” meaning “to steal” became part of the regional dialect. However, the OED says that the oldest usage of cabbage as a synonym for “to steal” goes back to 1793, and England, so who knows.

Cabbage onto. “To take a cotton to” meaning to like, which might come from how sticky short-staple cotton fibers are (they cling to everything because of static). “To tree” means to chase some animal or someone up a tree, literal or otherwise.* English doesn’t seem to have many other instances where a plant is verbed. Perhaps “to tomato” in the sense of to pelt someone with rotten produce, perhaps. I’ve never come across “to turnip,” or “to cucumber.” As metaphors and similes, sure. “Cool as a cucumber,” “red as a beet,” “he’s in a pickle,” which originally referred to the keg, barrel, or vat of brine used to preserve whatever was being pickled.

English is strange.

*”To pine” as a verb goes back a ways, but traces to Latin poena meaning a punishment, not pinus (also Latin) as in the tree.

Spring/Winter Skies

Texas, and the attached parts of North America, had a little weather last week. I believe this is called “spring.” It started with temperatures in the 80s F on Sunday, then colder weather on Monday, a thunderstorm on one side of town that became snow. The other side of town got drenched with training thunderstorms for a few hours, then snow. Come Tuesday morning, six inches of very heavy, wet snow covered everything. The temperature was 33F. Work started late, and the roads were mildly interesting because of the slush under the snow.

The heavy overcast had begun breaking up even before dawn, revealing glimpses of dark, almost glowing blue through the rents and tears in the grey-brown clouds. The sun shone down by afternoon, causing grumbling among those who didn’t bring dark glasses. Wednesday? Howling north winds, colder, and signs and buildings fall over in the 50-60 MPH winds.

Come Thursday, everyone was ready for a break. The skies . . . For a few hours, a field of spotty snow-virga and rain-virga, as well as real snow and rain showers, swept down from the north. Calm air predominated, then a gust of wind from the collapsing showers would rush past, chased by bits of rain and snow. The clouds bubbled on top, with grey, flat bottoms trailing blue-grey sweeps of moisture across the land. They drifted over the snow-draped land, white below, grey between, and white and crisp turquoise above. A few very high ice-clouds feathered over from west to east. In the gaps between the showers, you could see forever, or at least to the edge of the higher ground.

A few birds had ventured out, including a sharp-shinned hawk that dove and rose on the wind whirls, hunting for mice and foolish young rabbits in the pastures and lake-fringe. A meadowlark reminded everyone who owned the land, while a killdeer darted across the road. The doves stayed low, trying to be invisible as an even larger raptor cruised overhead.

Veils and sweeps of light and shadow, sun and rain/snow, passed across the plains. To say that they looked a bit like opaque jellyfish doesn’t do the beauty justice. I’ve never seen anything quite like that here. Bigger storms, yes, and virga yes, but not like that, tiny snow and rain showers quietly sailing down the land.

Creative Commons Fair Use. Original source:

Goth Bardic?

So, I was listening to the Wagakki Band and this appeared on the side-bar. Interesting juxtaposition.

Blind Guardian is better known as a heavy metal/speed metal group, but they also do, well, Tolkien-rock and things like this. It’s a sign of a good song that you can strip out the genre cues and it is still catchy and memorable. I suspect it will appear in a Familiars book.

Hard Times and Good People

A newsletter I get is based out of north Texas, not far from Weatherford. They were on the fringe of the big fires this past week, and missed the tornadoes (but not by much). The owner sent out an early update to let folks know that he and his were OK, and to provide access to a FaceBook page set up to coordinate help for the region.

It was heartening to see the responses. Lost pets and where located. Someone with a livestock trailer who would relocate horses and cattle from the affected area to some places that are taking in stock for now. Offers to help gas-up the truck pulling said livestock trailer if needed. Where to find supplies for emergency fence repairs. How to contact volunteer fire departments and what they need, if anything (water, granola bars, eye-drops, stuff like that). Someone with a big hay donation looking for transport to get it down to Texas. Two places with tee-shirts for sale, all proceeds going to particular Volunteer Fire Departments. Where to make donations in memory of a deputy who was killed. Where to report people welding badly (as in, in the grass, no spotter, no water for fire prevention, not on their own property!). Calls for volunteers and offers of volunteers. A church opening up bunks, showers, and two cabins for people who need them. A local bar having a benefit BBQ and concert. Pet food and supplies free to people who are caring for temporarily-lost pets.

In other words, local and regional people helping each other and not waiting for outside help. It’s the local churches and businesses, not FEMA or the state, taking care of immediate needs. Because that’s still what you do, at least in this part of the world. I suspect a lot of people know people who know those hit by the fires or tornadoes, so it’s a large-small community. And there’s a strong sense of “there but for the Grace and a mile go I.” We help, because we’ve been helped, or might need help. And it’s the right thing to do, if you are on the scene and have the needed expertise or resources.

Now, a week or so later, the next “ring” of people have gotten moving. Baptist groups and others have collected lumber, tools, and expertise, and are moving toward the area to help rebuild, repair, and restore. I suspect the Mennonite Disaster Relief also has teams getting ready to come in from Kansas, the Dakotas, and elsewhere. Just like will happen, is happening, in Louisiana. No one’s waiting for “someone in authority” to give instructions or approve projects. They are on the move, ready and willing to do what’s needed to help folks having a rough patch.

Because that’s what people of good will do.

I had to laugh . . .

So there, I was, driving Down State to visit friends last week. I could see the smoke of a grass or range fire a long time before I got close. I also had a CD in the stereo(Ghostlights by Avantasia).

Just as I got into the smoke, close enough to smell that it was mostly grass with a little brush, the chorus of “Babylon Vampyres” began.

Babylon is burning, shining from afar
Babylon is burning
From sunset to sunrise
Babylon is burning
and you‘re glowing like a fiery star
And no one can tell if we’ve been for real

(Tobias Sammet “Babylon Vampyres”)

I laughed. The timing was just too perfect. Yes, the Universe has quite a sense of humor!

Seven Modern Masters: Japanese Prints

I have a soft spot for Japanese art, be it brush painting, metal work, puppets, or prints. So when I saw that a special exhibit of Japanese woodblock prints would be at the Citadelle Museum in Canadian this spring, I made a mental note. Things worked out that my parents and I were able to go up there (90 minute or so drive) this past Friday, and it was worth the drive. Canadian is tucked away in the northeast corner of the Panhandle, and is one of those places that’s off the beaten track for most travel. The art museum is . . . a small gem, and you never know what will be there. Alphonse Mucha, Rembrandt sketches, art photography by Ansel Adams and others, Degas and Friends, hats from around the world . . . Plus the main museum with the permanent collection.

This time, the art was by seven modern masters of shin hanga, or “new style” woodblock prints. Some were derived from older works and reflected the style of masters like Hiroshige, while others tried to catch more impressionistic styles but using the woodblock medium. One, by Ito Shinsui entitled “Before the Thunderstorm” was especially impressive, catching grasses and plants bowing to the wind as a storm came in over faintly visible mountains or a cliff. Very Japanese, but also very Impressionist, and very good.

“Before A Thunderstorm” by Shinsui Ito. Creative Commons Fair Use. Original Here.

A more traditional, but not traditional work by Shinsui:

“Woman After a Bath” by Shinsui Ito. Used under Fair Use Creative Commons, Original found Here.

One difference between the “new style” artists and the more traditional woodblock artists was how they depicted women. Often they are more naturalistic, and show women of the working class, or women with tanned (by Japanese standards) faces and without makeup. There are more traditional depictions as well, because those sold, just like the kabuki actor prints sold. A few prints included embossed details, like one of two ducks in the water. A water lily had been embossed after printing, adding texture to the image. Others had a faint shimmer of mica added as a print layer.

One interesting contrast was a depiction of the Taj Mahal, drawn by a British artist, but done as a woodblock and sold in Japan by the major shin hanga and ukiyo-e printer, Watanabe.

The exhibition began with some background into the “new style” movement of the late 1800s-early 1900s, and a video about how Japanese woodblock prints were and are done. A few items of clothing and a sewing kit from Japan added context. The text with the art was excellent, good if you were familiar with the genre and time, but also good if the viewer is new to this type of visual art.

The exhibition will be in Canadian until April 26. If you are in the area Tuesday through Saturday, 11:00 AM – 4:00 PM, I suggest you stop by. There are other things to do in Canadian, and good restaurants and an excellent coffee shop.

A Good Flannel Shirt

Last fall, I got my usual flannel shirts out from under the bed and sighed. They still had some wear in them, but the buttons were starting to crack, elbows wearing too thin to patch, and the collars don’t close. They are open-collar, so to speak, and get drafty without a scarf or something else to fill the gap. They were/are also at least eight years old, and the wear is showing all over. Since I wear them daily in winter, if I’m not in a turtleneck, the time had come to get some replacements as back-up.

The new flannel shirts are heavier. They have collars that can button. They are softer (no age pilling) inside. They are roomier in the shoulder. They remind me very much of some flannels and corduroys that I wore to death when I was much younger. I loved them, and a cream-colored, ribbed turtleneck, until they fell apart. Every day, if I could get away with it, I wore those corduroy pants and the little turtleneck or the flannel shirt. Eventually Mom made the shirts and pants disappear when the patched holes had holes.

Every so often I end up with a garment like that. There’s one German dirndel-dress that I’ve had for twenty years and still wear every winter. Some jeans that are getting close to “too worn and faded even for garden work.” Some dressy sweaters that I got when I was flying for a living and that are no longer made. Work gloves that I wore until they fell apart and couldn’t be mended. Murphy’s Law of Fashion says that when you find a material, cut, and style that works for you (or for what you are doing, or both), that item will promptly be discontinued or the fit “updated.” Or the place will “reinvent” itself and no longer make anything close to your preferred/needed items. This happens enough that I now tend to find something, then go back and when budget permits, get at least one more.

A good garment, or shoe, or glove, or hat, is one that fits, wears well, and doesn’t remind you that “oh, yeah, I’m wearing that pair of boots.” Unless you have a reason to want to be reminded, like one of my performance black dresses that requires me to stand up straight, something very important when you are singing. (And it fits and is comfortable, and has real pockets, inspiring envy among some fellow musicians.) The older I get, the less negotiable pockets are becoming. As the hymn puts it, “I need thee every hour,” or at least when I can’t/won’t carry a handbag.

A warm, well-made flannel shirt in winter is a thing of beauty and a joy for as long as it lasts. Ditto comfortable shoes that have a good, solid sole and stay tied (if they have laces). Thick socks that stay up and don’t bunch in snow boots. Work gloves that really do work, instead of just pretending to be work gloves. Note that these things don’t have to be expensive. I got three-pack of leather work gloves (gardening or general use) from Sam’s some years ago and the dang things are still going strong. Likewise a couple of one-off test shirts from Duluth Trading that are still my go-to for heavy “grab and run” in winter.

Here’s to solid, well-made things that last and do exactly what they are supposed to!

When Money gets Expensive

Note: I am not an economic historian, and I am eliding a lot of monetary policy detail.

Right now, everyone is wincing at the inflation in progress in the US. Money is cheap compared to “stuff,” so the dollars per unit of stuff is going up. Most of us, I suspect, are far more familiar with inflation than deflation. Historically, inflation gets all the attention from historians. Roman emperors did it by diluting silver currency with lead or copper. Byzantine emperors did it by diluting silver currency. Spain under Charles V and Phillip II did it by accident when the treasures of the American poured into Seville and Madrid, thence into the economy of Europe to pay for the various Spanish wars. It hit again in the early 1600s when local nobles diluted silver with lead and copper.

What about deflation? If inflation’s bad for most people (like, oh, most of Europe in the 1500s-1600s), then deflation is good, yes? Prices go down, your coin buys more stuff per unit of coin, and everyone’s happy. Yes, if you are a consumer, or if you are collecting on a debt. If you are a producer of goods, or are paying off a debt, each dollar/schilling/mark you pay on that car loan is worth more and more flour/lattes/music CDs. And it takes more grain/chickens/butter/fabric to pay for each dollar in taxes. Instead of fifty bushels of wheat, now you have to pay one hundred bushels of wheat to get the same amount of coin/money.

That was the United States after the US Civil War. The country had become an industrial nation, although agriculture was still very, very important, and farmers had some political clout, if they could all get together and use it. However, it seemed to many rural people that the industrial east (steel, oil, railroads, consumer goods, the binder twine monopoly) ran both the economy and the country, to the detriment of the people actually growing and mining the stuff. Part of this lay in the US government’s insistence on a firm gold standard, with little or no coinage in silver. Money was very, very expensive. So expensive that it attracted British investors, who could make a fortune loaning money to American businesses at 10-15% interest, as compared to the 3-5% interest back in England.*

People, namely consumers and businessmen, in the urban areas did well and the standard of living was growing nicely. People who had to pay taxes in gold coin or gold-backed notes, and who produced food and fiber, felt trapped and squeezed. They paid taxes. City people didn’t. (The income tax didn’t exist. Taxes were land taxes, and import/export.) Farmers and ranchers and miners had to scrape up gold coin for taxes and other bills, even as prices they got for their grain, cattle, and fiber dropped compared to the value of that coin. With the discovery of the big silver loads in Nevada, Colorado, and California, westerners and farmers began pushing for “free silver.” They wanted a bimetallic standard, gold and silver, and cheaper (inflated) money so that they could pay their bills and prosper.

Toss in the international economic splat (Panic) in 1873, the first modern global recession, then a downturn in 1886 and the Panic of 1893, and you have three decades of lack-of-progress for some, along with growing labor unrest. On top of that, new immigrants were arriving from Central and Southern Europe. They spoke little or no English, dressed funny or seemed otherwise “Off” (Italians), tended to be Catholic or even Jewish, and worked for cheap compared to native-born Americans. Oh, and a few people in Europe were assassinating elected and hereditary rulers in the idea that if you eliminate the monarch, the government will go away and Paradise!** And Marx’s ideas were in the air, but they weren’t all that popular in the US just yet.

Out of this you get the Progressive Movement (efficiency, internationalism, experts know what is best for the rest of the people, central government over state governments) and the Populist Party, which was an outgrowth of the earlier Farmers Alliance and Farmers’ Union.*** The Populists wanted cheap money (Free Silver!), limited immigration (no Brits buying huge chunks of land that Americans needed), and more attention paid to the West and Midwest, especially to farmers’ demands. The Populists were in some cases, like the earlier Alliance, multi-racial, or tried to be. One of the reasons for Jim Crow in the South had been to keep poor whites and poor blacks from working together to oust the old elites from political power.

So inflation’s not good, deflation’s not good, and thus far, I’m not certain anyone has come up with a way to achieve “just right” for more than a few years at a time. You want a stable form of exchange that doesn’t get “watered down” with lead or copper, or that governments can’t produce through handwavium. You also need to keep that medium of exchange from becoming too expensive for people to use. Somewhere there’s a Goldilocks point of not too inflated, not too deflated, and prices for currency are just right compared to prices for stuff. Somewhere . . . Somewhere . . .

*Ever wonder why so many huge ranches were owned by English and Scottish companies? They had the cash to invest. The Swan, XIT, Rocking Chair Ranche, JA, ROW, and others all came from British money.

**The Anarchists tended to be hazy on the steps in-between, and often disagreed with each other.

***The Farmers’ Union is still around, and still somewhat active in Kansas and Nebraska and South Dakota.