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Damn & dams: An update around Chicago outdoors (on dams)

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“The great beauty of wild fish is we don’t have to do a goddamn thing for them, except to leave them the hell alone,’’ Lee Spencer of the North Umpqua Foundation says in the “DamNation.’’

That applies doubly to the flowing waters that fish and aquatic life thrive in.

On March 10, I watched the “DamNation’’ (a film I highly recommend, think Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang’’) and listened to a discussion and update on area dams by streams biologist Steve Pescitelli.

The Conservation Foundation and the Village of Montgomery sponsored the evening at the Montgomery Village Hall.

Dams rankle me, specifically attitudes about dams rankle me. It has taken too long to change opinions that should not take changing. It’s as stupid as arguing about flat earth theory or climate change.

The value of free-flowing vs dammed is overwhelming, whether it is for the species and number of fish and other aquatic life or the health of the rivers themselves.

In practical terms, Pescitelli said, `You almost never see fishermen fishing above the dam. There is a good reason for that.”

Yeah, fish favor the healthier flowing waters.

Yet, change comes very slowly on dams.

“At first, it was a real struggle, even within the DNR,’’ said Pescitelli, who came to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (Department of Conservation) in 1994.

The battle to remove the Hofmann Dam on the Des Plaines River began in 1996 when I began doing the outdoors for the Sun-Times. The dam was not removed until 2012.

The removal of the Hofmann Dam allowed the Des Plaines to rapidly recover.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman
The removal of the Hofmann Dam allowed the Des Plaines to rapidly recover.
Credit: Dale Bowman

Yet, it was a watershed moment in Chicago-area dams. It was a big, well-known dam with a history. It’s removal marked another historic moment.

Within months, channel catfish returned to the pool above the dam; and “tons of minnows’’–primarily bluntnose minnows, sand shiners and spotfin shiners–were found in the restored pools and riffles.

That story was repeated in as dramatic fashion when the Blackberry Creek Dam (the top photo) was removed near the mouth at the Fox.

Few good reasons exist for most dams to continue in the 21st Century.

Brook McDonald, TCF CEO since 1996, put it gently, “If not providing functional value, then why not consider removing that dam.’’

We made significant headway in Illinois. Here politics matter. One driving force came with former Gov. Pat Quinn’s “Dam Removal Initiative.’’

So far 23 dams have been removed in the area and another three had fish passages put in. There were or are 12 more removals planned.

“We kinda ran into a problem,’’ Pescitelli said. “Without a budget, no money can be spent. I can’t even fix my boats. We don’t look for any movement any time soon.”

There’s the ugly side of Illinois politics. It stalled dam removal.

It’s too bad, because I think Jessi DeMartini captured the human essence when she was asked for comments at meeting’s end. As ecologist for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County and coordinator for the Urban Stream Research Center, she has been at the heart of dam removal and river restoration.

“It gives joy and a sense of serenity to sit by that bubbling brook,’’ she said. “To free that river up is a joyful thing.’’

And let water do what water does, run free and wild.