Thursday, March 03, 2011

Dam It!

There’s a storm brewing in my little hometown: a century-old dam is slated for demolition, which will change the character of the river upstream from it beyond recognition and which has the potential to introduce severe toxins to that stretch of water from industrial contamination downstream. No one is happy, except for the board of the condo complex that owns and failed to maintain the dam and the local representative of a trout fishing organization who claims the “restored” river will be a magnet for anglers, who will descend in swarms upon the town, making it the tourist mecca it was always meant to be. Dream on, trout man.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of dams. I’ve read Edward Abbey. I know about the breathtaking redrock landscapes destroyed forever by the Glen Canyon Dam. I have no doubt that before the dam was built in the opening days of the 20th century, South River was a lovely and bucolic stream, wending its way through the apple orchards that once flourished where the city park now lies. But in the century following the construction of the dam, the impounded waters formed a wider, deeper river where locals used to swim and where they still canoe, fish, and enjoy the river wildlife. They also used the deeper waters as a convenient place to dump their big crap, including appliances, worn out tires, and who knows what else. There are also a number of exposed pipes below the surface, especially near the dam… You can see where this is going, right? Especially since in the century since the dam was built, homes have also been built along the riverbanks, upstream of the dam all the way up to the park boundary. That riverfront property didn’t come cheap. And apparently the owners’ land rights extend to the center of the river. Oh yes, you can see where this is going.

From the time I was two, my family has lived about a block from the river. My mom and brother still live in that house, which is situated on the street that leads down to the city park and dead-ends at the river’s edge. There used to be a boat ramp at the end of the street; now it just diverges into parking lots on either side. My dad used to pull my brother and me in our purple “Happy-Time” wagon down to the river to feed the ducks. He also had an old wooden rowboat that he had painted bright blue, and he used to row us in that boat up and down the river as far as we could go. There was a broad island with shallows on either side that stopped our progress upstream just at the park boundary, but we could go all the way down the river to the dam, which was originally constructed by a factory that made pump parts and later stoves. I was always afraid of going too near the dam—when I was a kid, it seemed to me to as dangerous as Niagara Falls, if not quite as high. In reality, only the highest of water could have swept anyone or any craft (even an innertube, I’ll wager) over what is anything but a precipice. Really, it’s little more than a weir, isn’t it?

Anyway, by the time we rowed up and down the river (and later paddled it in a canoe my dad built, which supplanted the rowboat in our family fleet), the company that built the dam in the first place had gone out of business, and the factory loomed empty and abandoned over the dam. It burned down a good forty years ago, and in its place, a condo complex of townhomes arose. As it turns out, the condo complex owns the dam and, although many of the residents love the sound of the water coursing over the structure (according to an article in the hometown newspaper about the brewing controversy), the condo association never bothered to maintain this part of their property. So now it will cost three times as much to restore the dam as to demolish it. Which the condo association board has agreed to do. Demolish it, that is.

Apparently, the only person outside the condo board who had any wind of the plan before it went public was the aforementioned local representative of the trout-fishing consortium, who has (according to local rumor) been meeting regularly with the board to encourage them to get rid of the dam so that the river can become a fast moving trout stream again. Which, according to trout-dude, will bring tourists in droves. Really, trout-dude? Seriously? This is Waynesboro we’re talking about. As a native daughter (well, almost… I was born in Staunton, 12 miles away), I see the community’s charms. But tourist mecca it ain’t, nor will it ever be.

Now that the trout has jumped the hook, so to speak, and word about the demolition is out, the homeowners who live upstream and many others in the community who enjoy paddling on and fishing (just not for trout) in the waters impounded by the dam are understandably upset.

It may well turn into a community battle the likes of which has not been seen since Phil Sheridan wupped Jubal Early’s ass on the battlefield that eventually became the playground for my elementary school (which is now just ball fields, because the erstwhile school is now the town’s Senior Center) back in 1865.

Which leads me to ask...


Didn’t the condo board even consider the ramifications of this decision? Didn’t it occur to them that the property owners upstream of the dam and the people who enjoy the river and its current crop of wildlife might be understandably upset to wake up one morning to find a muddy, trash-filled, pipe-laden ditch with a trickle of water down the middle where a pretty, lazy river used to be? Because I can clearly see that the homeowners will be knocking on the condo board’s door to demand that said board pay for clean-up, landscaping, loss of property values… And I am no math whiz, but even I can do this arithmetic: The cost of demolishing this dam may well cost the condo association a lot MORE than the $250,000 they claim it would take to restore the dam.

Here’s the saddest thing about this: I cannot help but think that homeowners and those who enjoy the river as it is would have been willing to work with the condo association to find a solution to the funding issue. Community members working together for the good of everyone concerned. Civic lessons learned. Civic pride reinforced. BUT, since the board decided to move on this without letting anyone know about it until they had to reveal their plan, the route of cooperation is probably closed to them forever. The route of lawsuits and bad feelings, though, THAT rocky road is wide open.


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