Friday, October 23, 2009

Change, time, the town, and the river. A parable

After attending another public hearing on dam removal, this time in the village of Grafton, WI, and listening to all the opposition of property owners and concerned citizens to the loss of the "aesthetic beauty" of the historic impoundment, and the complete lack of vision by citizenry as to what a free-flowing river can bring to a community, as it has to our very Milwaukee River upstream of the old North Avenue dam, the area of the former Woolen Mills dam in West Bend, and Waubeka, Grafton at the chair factory, etc. etc., I decided to do what I do best, and write a little story. Its setting is a fictional combination of real places, but the story runs true...

Change, time, the town, and the river. A parable

Glenton, an affluent suburban village, began its storied history as a small rural village centered on a bend in the Waumukee River. The river flowed over limestone and gravel, and exposed bedrock and boulders created natural little rapids. People were attracted to the town, and it began to grow. At dusk, local citizens and farm laborers would often fish the river for its smallmouth bass and walleye, and take a few fish home for supper. A local carpenter built affordable wooden canoes, and sold them to the villagers for river recreation. On Sundays after church, whole families held picnics along the river while the children hunted crayfish and caught tadpoles.

Then in the 1920s, a grain company constructed a mill along the river, and a dam was built in order to form a millpond. Some citizens complained to the village, and stated that the river in its natural state was an asset to the community and the fishing and outdoor activities would suffer. Progress, jobs, and tax base however, were deemed more important.

In time the bass and walleye went away, but the people no longer noticed. They began to see the carp in the impoundment as a normal state of affairs. People fed them white bread along with the ducks and geese.

Over the years, Glenton changed. The rural town situated near a large city became a haven of affluent and successful suburbanites. Old ford pickup trucks and battered country squires were replaced by SUVs. Victorian homes were crowded by new condo developments along the river, and new restaurants and trendy shops followed the growing affluence. The citizens commuted to work in the city, but enjoyed suburban comfort and safety. More and more, they became disconnected with the natural world, and began to think of the impoundment or pond as the actual river itself. Nobody living could remember an un-dammed river in Glenton, or what it looked like. It only existed in photos in the county historical society. Children no longer haunted the river in summer, being too busy with organized sports and video games.

But, rivers and time have a way of making dust of man’s best efforts to tame nature, and the dam began to decay.

Fish passage issues and safety concerns caused the state regulatory agency to issue a removal or upgrade order, and the costs of replacing the dam were astronomical. The village decided to hold a public hearing regarding the dam and its future. People crowded the little grade-school cafeteria one fall evening to express their concerns.
The newer members of the community and owners of condos and properties abutting the river worried about their property values declining.

Others spoke of mud flats and wondered what the river would look like if the dam were removed.

They worried about lost fishing opportunities, although nobody could remember the last time anyone actually caught a fish in the impoundment. People worried aloud that “They were trying to take away our river.” Many residents expressed the view that the dam and waterfall along with the pond were aesthetically valuable to the community, and that they would have no reason to live in the town if the pond went away. A sense of communal fear of change gripped the people of Glenton.

Older town dwellers spoke about the times they went swimming in the pond back in WWII, and others mourned the possible loss of still water boating. The state regulatory agency was vilified, and people cried “Not in my back yard!”

A single elderly man addressed the board and admonished the citizens. “You are afraid of change,” he said. “You are afraid of losing something, but what will happen here if the dam is removed is that we will all trade one asset for another. A river will run through town, not a still water pond. We are ignorant of what the river will look like in the future, so we grab hold of what we have and hold on for dear life, even if what we have now is but a shadow of what we could have if the dam is removed. Think with your heads, and not your hearts.”

The village board weighed the decision before them carefully, and after heated deliberation, decided that the cost of reconstructing and maintaining the dam was prohibitive. Contractors began to drain the impoundment pond and extract the silt deposited over the years. One-day large construction equipment showed up by the river, and while the villagers watched, the dam was slowly demolished.

At first, everyone agreed that the river without the dam looked terrible, but in no time the river found its original channel and began moving the silt and creating oxygenated riffles. Aquatic insects returned, and along with them the bass and walleye. Herons and kingfishers multiplied, and bald eagles were spotted.
The gravel bars and mud flats exposed by the newly free river began to bloom with wildflowers and prairie grasses.
To everyone’s surprise, property values actually went up, as the new free-flowing river became an attraction and asset again. The ducks were still there, munching on aquatic vegetation instead of wonderbread, and looking healthier for it. People still picnicked by the river, but now they no longer had to worry about the smell of algae spoiling their sandwiches. Instead, a clean crisp water smell pervaded the park along the river. Children began to explore the waters, and crayfish were again prized.

The most vocal supporters of the dam were quiet, but in time, even they had to agree that a free-flowing river was a greater asset to the community than the warm water pond the dam had created.
The head of the local business association, himself a fervent dam supporter, was seen from time to time down by the river with an old bamboo fly-rod.

Time flowed by like the river itself, and people grew up along the newly restored river like their ancestors before them, fishing, boating and enjoying the swoops of swallows and cedar-waxwings over the river every evening. In time, the dam was long forgotten, and the village board, looking to attract tourists, changed the slogan of the community to “Glenton, where the river runs free.”


  1. I love a happy ending.

  2. Hey BR!
    Good to see you at the meeting.
    Let us all hope it is a happy ending.


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