“Free the Rivers” – Benefits of Historical Dam Removal

Long before the Standing Rock Sioux reminded us that “Water is Life!”, pre-colonial Americans deeply understood this simple truth in a way none of us can now imagine.  Rivers were their lifeblood; something they respected and ultimately put to use to make their lives easier. What resulted from their early ingenuity were thousands of dams used to operate early industrial operations, such as grist mills or sawmills. Many of these historical dams are well over 100 years old, in disrepair and no longer serve their original intended purpose. They also continue to impede the natural processes of river ecosystems. What can be done about these unneeded remnants of American history?

The Nature Conservancy (TNC), American Rivers, and other river restoration organizations have some answers. These groups are working hard to “free the rivers” by supporting dam removal projects across the country. Working in partnership with individuals, communities and government agencies, they have made great strides in restoring river habitats, improving fish breeding grounds, all while supporting the cultural and historical significance of this early American phenomenon.

This is no easy task, to be sure. Especially when you consider the magnitude of the impacts imposed on rivers by dams. The Penobscot River in Maine is a great example of how rivers can be restored. The Penobscot is New England’s second largest river with a length of 109 miles and which drains an area of 8,570 miles. Until recently, this river system had 119 dams which, the TNC noted, restricted fish migrating from the ocean to about 30 miles of navigable river.

Destruction of Veazie Dam on Penobscot River. Photo: Penobscot Trust/Flickr

TNC worked with several other groups to negotiate the removal of two hydropower dams and to build a fish bypass on a third dam. The results have been impressive. TNC reported in the same article, that “past counts of just a few thousand river herring have blossomed to more than 1.8 million in 2016. Researchers also documented three short-nosed sturgeon swimming farther upriver than they’ve been seen in 200 years.”

The largest dam removal project in U.S. history began in 2011 on the Elwha River in Washington. Two dams, the Elwha Dam and the Glines Canyon Dam, were removed and the river’s comeback has been vigorously studied and supported since then.

(Watch a video of the Elwha Dam destruction here.)

River recovery studies on the Elwha River have come back overwhelmingly positive. High Country News reported that in 2016, “biologists spotted chinook, steelhead, coho, bull trout and sockeye spawning upstream of the Glines Canyon Dam site for the first time in nearly a century. Pacific lamprey have returned unaided.”

However, it’s not just fish that benefit from dam removal. Entire ecosystems are being stimulated and returning to a more natural state. Sediments once held back behind the dams, are now forming beaches and helping to reshape the rivers paths. Animals, such as otter and smaller rodents, are returning to areas along the river.

Even plants have made an impressive recovery. High Country News reported “Studies conducted prior to dam removal found that there were 90 percent fewer seeds in the water below Glines Canyon Dam than above, and 84 percent fewer species represented. After the dam came down, the numbers equalized all along the channel.”

Even more encouraging is that dam removal projects seem to be on an upswing. American Rivers notes that between 1912 through 2016, 1384 dams have been removed nationwide. In 2016 alone, 72 dams were removed to help restore rivers. Overall, the United States has roughly 90,000 dams.

(American Rivers website features a map of U.S. dam removal projects here.)

A quick website review of dam removal projects in the U.S. reveals, that in addition to national groups like The Nature Conservancy and American Rivers, there are a large number of local groups emerging across the country to advocate dam removal. Groups, such as, “Free VT Rivers”, “Connecticut River Conservancy”, “Idaho Rivers United”, “River Alliance of Wisconsin”, are just a few of the many groups working to help restore river ecosystems.

It’s obvious that dam construction has played a vital role in America’s economic development and will continue to do so for a long time. However, it is encouraging to know that more and more people are supporting the dismantling of historical dams that no longer support their original intention, so-called “deadbeat dams,” as well as advocating the removal of dams that have severely impacted river ecosystems.

To learn more about the overall benefits of dam removal, visit American Rivers, The Nature Conservancy or do a web search on river restoration organizations in your state.

There are many ways to help restore rivers. What will yours be?

The Highs and Lows of Growing Weed

Currently, 30 states and the District of Columbia have legalized forms of marijuana and more states are likely to follow. Marijuana sales have been on fire. In 2017, sales were expected to reach $9.7 billion, and analysts are predicting sales of $24.5 billion by 2021, as new states enter the market. Yet, behind the “green gold rush”, an insidious story is unfolding. One fostered by the green and the greed which comes with it. Ultimately one that kills.

Image Source: Getty Images

It’s well known that Mexican drug cartels are growing weed in remote locations of U.S. national forests. California has been hit the hardest by this illegal activity. As reported by Reuter’s, there are an estimated 50,000 grow sites in California which is believed to comprise about 90% of all illegal pot farming in the United States.  Even with the state’s recent legalization of marijuana, officials expect only about 16,000 of these growers to seek commercial cultivation licenses.

Lack of law enforcement in these vast, remote areas is exploited by growers. The illegal operators are emboldened by limited oversight and will defend their turf if they feel threatened. The Atlantic online article noting that “Growers have followed, detained, threatened, pursued, and shot at officers and civilians, including scientists and field techs. One Forest Service biologist who stumbled upon a grow site in Sequoia National Forest was chased for close to an hour by armed growers.”

Not only are these areas unsafe for any unsuspecting soul rambling about, they are often havens for extremely toxic chemicals used as pesticides or rodenticides. Reuter’s published an online article which details how growers are using “fertilizers and pesticides long restricted or banned in the United States, including carbofuran and zinc phosphide.”  These chemicals are so toxic that enforcement officials have been hospitalized after touching plants treated with these chemicals or handling equipment used in their application. Now imagine smoking or ingesting some of that.

Other lethal chemicals found on remote grow sites include aluminum phosphide, for killing rodents and insects; bromadiolone, a restricted-use neurotoxic rodenticide; brodifacoum, an anticoagulant rodenticide; and malathion, an organophosphate insecticide that’s been compared to a watered-down version of the nerve agent sarin.

There is concern that some of these toxin-laden plants are infiltrating legalized medicinal marijuana markets, potentially impacting people with serious health conditions like AIDS or cancer. The Atlantic article noted that “studies and investigations in Colorado and Oregon have found pesticides on marijuana in legal dispensaries, including in products that were supposedly certified pesticide-free.”

Unsuspecting wildlife has taken the greatest hit. In addition to the rodents targeted by growers, the toxic materials have worked their way up the food chain. Researchers at the University of California – Davis revealed that tissue samples from spotted owls and barred owls tested positive for rat poison.  This is a significant concern because the northern spotted owls are listed as a threatened species under federal and state Endangered Species acts.

Other animals found dead at grow sites include Pacific fishers, bears, vultures, foxes, and deer; presumably from ingesting one or more of these chemicals. There are even concerns about cattle being poisoned by marijuana farms. These illicit activities also impact and kill aquatic organisms; including fish.

Another pressing concern for California is the impact on local water supplies. California just came out of a 15-year drought. Conditions got so bad in 2015 that Governor Jerry Brown imposed mandatory water reductions of 25% on residents, businesses, and farms. The restrictions continued until March of 2017.

Marijuana is known to be a high-water crop. State officials suggest that growers are watering each plant with about 6 gallons of water per day. Multiply that by 50,000 grow sites and thousands of plants per site and you have monumental water use. As reported in The Atlantic, “the 1.1 million illegal pot plants removed in California in 2016 would have used somewhere around 1.3 billion gallons of water—as much as 10,000 average California households do in a year.” This water use figure becomes even more daunting when you consider enforcement officials consider that 50,000 grow sites state-wide is likely to be a low estimate.

To help regulate excessive water use for cannabis growers, the California State Water Board has established specific “Cannabis Cultivation Water Rights” to help protect stream flows, wetlands, aquatic habitats and even groundwater from negative impacts of cannabis cultivation. These regulations will be applied to legal cultivators of weed but it is extremely unlikely any illegal grower will even acknowledge such regulations.

Illegal growers are only interested in a successful harvest and not in helping the environment. Several reports have verified the intentional destruction of wetland areas, extensive diversion of stream flows, excessive pumping of groundwater as well as toxic chemicals leaching into soils and waterways, potentially impacting downstream users.

Unfortunately, these destructive practices are likely to continue as long as there is a demand for illegal marijuana. Some advocates suggest that legalization in all states will stop or greatly reduce illegal cultivation since the industry will become highly regulated. Until that happens, conditions are likely to remain the same.

Right now, the best thing that legal marijuana users can do for themselves and the environment is to find out where and how their pot is grown. Any legitimate dispensary should be willing to provide that information. If they can’t, shop somewhere else. This issue is too important to go up in smoke.

Is Fracking America’s Crack Cocaine?

Most of us know the horrors of crack cocaine addiction.  Many of our jails, half-way houses and streets are filled with people who cannot get enough of this dangerous drug. The Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR) website reports “a person can become addicted after his or her first time trying crack cocaine.” Users quickly develop a tolerance for the drug and need more and more to sustain their high. They often resort to all sorts of risky behaviors to obtain their drug of choice.1 Is America doing the same thing with its dependence on oil?

Gone are the easily accessible oil fields which fueled our nation in the late 19th and the 20th centuries. Prolific reminders of their powerful influence scatter the country side with their rusted, iron bones. Abandoned oil and gas wells are everywhere.  NPR’s StateImpact website reported “There are probably around 200,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. We know where just a slim fraction – probably four percent – of these wells are.”2 How many more are there across the country? No one knows for sure.

As America’s dependence on oil continues to grow, our nation engages in riskier and riskier behaviors to get its oil fix. No one can forget the havoc created by the Deepwater Horizons incident that began on April 20, 2010 and continued a full 6-months until September 19, 20103. That one spill delivered a toxic shock of 154,000,000 gallons of crude oil to the Gulf of Mexico.4 According to a BBC.com news story released November 15th, 2016, “researchers in Louisiana have discovered traces of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in the feathers of birds eaten by land animals.”5 In other words, oil has entered the Gulf’s food chain.

Our insatiable thirst for oil has led us to create some controversial technological cures to support our habit – fracking being the main one. Conflicting health and environmental reports are everywhere. It should come as no surprise that a recent comprehensive report prepared for the American Petroleum Institute (API) by Catalyst Environmental Solutions plainly stated it found “Quantitative Support for EPA’s Finding of No Widespread, Systemic Effects to Drinking Water Resources from Hydraulic Fracturing.”6 Yep, as the title suggests and the US EPA has reported there’s no drinking water impact from fracking!7 Seems a little unbelievable to me.

Also released this month was a report prepared by two groups of physicians the Concerned Health Professionals of New York and the Physicians for Social Responsibility with completely different results. Their document titled “Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction)”8 highlights several public health concerns. Their article reviews the “scientific literature available from 2009-2015—which… included 685 peer reviewed papers—69 percent of original research studies on water quality found potential for, or actual evidence of, water contamination; 87 percent of original research studies on air quality found elevated air pollutant emissions; and 84 percent of original research studies on human health risks found signs of harm or indication of potential harm.”9

Doesn’t it make you wonder how the EPA did their assessment? 



  1. Patterson, Eric, “Crack Abuse”; Drug Abuse. No date. Web. 19 November 2016
  2. “Perilous Pathways: The Danger Of Drilling Near Abandoned Wells”; StateImpact NPR. No date. Web. 19 November 2016
  3. “Deepwater Horizon oil spill”; Wikipedia. no date. Web. 19 November 2016.
  4. Gill, Victoria, “BP Deepwater Horizon oil in land-animal food chain”; BBC News.  16 November 2016. Web. 19 November 2016.
  5. Ibid, Gill.
  6. “Quantitative Support for EPA’s Finding of No Widespread, Systemic Effects to Drinking Water Resources from Hydraulic Fracturing”; report for American Petroleum Institute by Catalyst Environmental Solutions, November 2016.
  7. “U.S. EPA. Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources (External Review Draft)”. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, EPA/600/R-15/047, 2015.
  8. “Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction)”, compiled by Concerned Health Professionals of New York and Physicians for Social Responsibility, Fourth Edition, November 17, 2016.
  9. Ibid, p. 4

What’s a Wildlife Guzzler?

Wildlife guzzlers….have you heard of them? They sound like a two-can party hat worn by the frat boys in “Animal House” but they are not. They are simple devices that collect rainwater for use by animals in rural or remote areas.

Image Source: Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service

Guzzlers can range from homemade designs using 30 or 55 gallon plastic barrels to in-ground, networked systems holding 25,000 gallons of water.  The size of the guzzler depends on the type and amount of animals using the guzzler. Small guzzlers can provide water for birds and small animals, whereas larger guzzlers would provide water for cattle and other large animals.

Other design factors include the location of existing water sources, mobility of animals, local rainfall patterns and the ability to maintain the site. Good planning is important before construction begins.

Historically, guzzlers have been used by state and federal highway departments to reduce the number of animal fatalities by vehicles in rural areas.  The watering stations are placed in undeveloped areas to lure animals away from roadways and reduce the need for the animals to cross highways in search of water.

Another use for guzzlers is to avoid wildlife and human interaction in populated areas. As the drought in Arizona continues into its 20th year, there is growing concern about the potentially dangerous mix of large predatory animals, such as mountain lions and bears, coming closer and closer to human environments looking for water.

In our state, Arizona Game & Fish has installed more than 850 wildlife watering stations of various designs since their first “Arizona guzzler” in 1946.  Two new watering stations are located here in the Huachuca Mountains – Black Canyon and West Hunter Canyon in the Coronado National Forest.  Both of these designs were developed to reduce animal – vehicle strikes.

There are many benefits associated with the use of guzzlers. The Arizona Big Horn Sheep Society notes that where water sources are few, artificial water devices increase game bird, amphibian and big horn sheep populations.

Wildlife guzzlers are also becoming mainstream. Guzzlers have primarily been built by conservation districts, government agencies and land trusts, but now scout troops, landowners and environmental organizations are creating them as special projects.

There are economic benefits to installing guzzlers too. Ranchers in the Big Bend area of Texas have installed wildlife guzzlers to increase mule deer populations on their land. These ranchers earn extra money by leasing hunting rights to sportsmen. In this case, water guzzlers provide an economic incentive for ranchers and are a fringe benefit to other wildlife species in the area, providing a win-win scenario for everyone – except maybe the mule deer.

Community oriented guzzler projects have also sprung up. The Hill Country Master Gardeners in Texas, part of the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service, have gotten together with the Boys and Girls Club of Fredericksburg to make a birdbath guzzler at their Native Plant Center.  Detailed plans of their simple guzzler design are posted on http://www.hillcountrymastergardeners.org/articles2/others_art2/guzzler_brochure.pdf.

It’s exciting to think the Hill Country Master Gardeners and Boys and Girls Club might be on to something. Their simple design could easily be duplicated by scout groups or other civic organizations. Every southern Arizona community could benefit from teaming up to build rainwater catchment guzzlers for wildlife, and we can all drink (water) to that!