(Thematically, this blog is all about second-guessing the obvious: thinking about different angles and perspectives. This particular post is inspired by a current environmental/political controversy that is specific to my city. The larger thesis, however, is an idea that has broader ramifications. Even if you are not a local resident, I am curious to hear your thoughts — and especially interested in the outcomes of similar debates in other regions.)
The Thames River flows through my city (London, Ontario). Intermittently, between 1870s and 2005, a dam in the Springbank region has been a feature of the river. Initially built for power, a later 1929 iteration was designed to elevate water levels sufficiently for recreational activities within the city, such as canoeing and boating. Then, in 2008, a newly refurbished version of the dam failed, leaving the municipal government in years of litigation with contractors until 2015, when a legal settlement was finally reached.
Now there is an emergent controversy about what should happen next. Some environmentalists and anglers argue that permanently decommissioning the dam is better for the ecological health of the river. As an oft mentioned 2003 environmental assessment notes, “The removal of the dam would result in the elimination of the upstream head pond that would revert the river back to its natural ‘pre-dam’ riverine state.” A 2004 report on endangered species in the watershed prompted many people to begin looking at the biodiversity of the region carefully. A February 2016 report notes:
There are now known species at risk in the area of the Springbank Dam and the part-time reservoir that it creates. They are as follows: Spiny Softshell Turtle, Queensnake, Eastern Hog-nosed Snake, Salamander (Mudpuppy) Mussel and Silver Shiner (fish), as well as species of special concern such as the Northern Map Turtle, Snapping Turtle and Green Dragon (perennial wildflower)
On the other hand, canoeists and other recreational users of the river are suspicious about the environmental claims. They point out that there are already 10 other operational dams and 244 flow barriers in the upper Thames watershed alone, not to mention 3 major flood control structures. Supporters of the dam reconstruction, like a some city planners and tourism advocates, insist on the aesthetic and social value of recreational waterways. This camp wants the dam fixed yesterday. Everyone has an angle.
First, a clarification is necessary: I resonate greatly with the ecological concerns addressed by critics of the dam. I publicly consider myself an ‘environmentalist’ — I appreciate that the very cells I am composed of exist in an irrefutably entwined relationship with my habitat. I’m a bit of a ‘systems head‘ too. You don’t have to convince me that everything is, indeed, interconnected. Yes, sign me up for ecological responsibility. I’m all in. This, in fact, is exactly why I am writing this piece to begin with.
Therefore, I propose that we apply a broader systems approach to this controversy. This means we must ask questions. How does decommissioning one dam make an urban watershed more ‘natural’? Upstream, in terms of flow rate, the Springbank dam affects about 22.5km of waterway (for local readers, see 21km from the Fanshawe dam to the Springbank dam, plus 1.5km from the Richmond Street dam to the Forks), plus related watershed. This stretch of about 22.5km is surrounded by an urban population of over 360,000 human beings.
If by ‘natural’ we mean, ‘unaffected by human activity’, then there is obviously no way that 22.5km of river surrounded by 360,000 humans can really be ‘natural’ at all. So what do we mean when we speak of ‘naturalization’ in this context? If we removed all three flood control structures upstream, parts of our own municipal region would occasionally be uninhabitable (i.e. underwater) every year. The point is this: the only way this river system is ever going to be ‘natural’ again is if we all leave (and go set up our camp in another environment somewhere else).
The idea of a ‘natural’ river, in this sense, is impossible to achieve. Even if we diligently treat every ounce of raw sewage before dumping it into the river, 360,000 inhabitants are still going to leave a significant mark on the local ecology. Therefore, this is not a question of whether or not the river should be naturalized, it’s specifically a question about what it means for the river to be healthy. But this means we actually asking a deceptively difficult question: what does it mean for 22.5km of river to be ‘healthy’ while it is surrounded by 360,000 human beings? We clearly ought not confuse the idea of a ‘healthy river’ with the concept of a ‘natural river’ here.
We might think of this another way: an urban park is full of nature, but it is not particularly natural. It is often mowed, manicured, and trimmed. Using our definitions, a ‘natural’ park would not be much of a ‘park’ at all: it would be an undisturbed swath of land at some stage in an ecological fauna/flora cyclical, probably initially beginning with a dense underbrush. Parks may be beautiful, they might ‘connect’ us with nature, but they are not naturally occurring phenomena. Like human dwellings, highways, pets, vegetable gardens, and parking lots, every recreational park also encroaches on and displaces certain species of plants and wildlife, too. On one hand, our ‘green spaces’ are a bit like our shopping malls: they exist because we create them; they are designed by us. But is this a reason to get rid of all our urban parks? No. In fact, on the contrary, we protect them. As much as parks are unnatural, we tend to weigh the social and environmental cost of losing them as greater than the social and environmental cost of keeping them. Culturally, we seem attuned to the notion that maintaining this ethereal ‘connection to nature’ in our urban centres is important, even if our tactile experience of nature is admittedly fabricated and contrived.
We want a healthy river. We also want to convince generations who are not yet born that they should want a healthy river, too. How do we send this memo forward in time? Obviously, our best efforts will all be for naught if our great grandchildren are elected to higher government and decide that imposing sewage treatment regulations on municipalities is a superfluous demand on tax payers! (Indoor plumbing and sewage treatment, incidentally, are not ‘natural’ phenomena either: they are human inventions designed precisely for the betterment of our own health as per the health of our environment.)
Here’s my point: If we want a healthier river tomorrow, we need as many people as possible to appreciate the river today, in much the same way we hope our descendants will continue to protect and value the parks and green spaces we have inherited. Ultimately, systemically, if we want fewer swimming pools and car washes emptied into the Thames in the future, we need to be inspiring more families to become canoeists, evening strollers, and park enthusiasts. If we want future terms of council to fix sewage plant bypass problems when they arise, we need another generation of electable individuals who value the river.
If there is such a thing as an environmental case for fixing the Springbank dam, I suppose it might be this: increasing the usability, accessibility, functionality, and aesthetics of this relatively short, 22.5km stretch of river is our best hope for assuring its health in future generations. For it to be healthy, a river surrounded by 360,000 people must be respected by a critical mass. For it to be respected, it must be valued. For it to be valued, it must be a focal point and a concern for as many people as possible.
From the perspective of a broader, long-term, system analysis, the Springbank dam is an issue that is bigger than our own city alone. Protecting other remote and isolated environments from the unnecessary human interference begins here, when people come to value the ecology around them. In urban environments, we ‘save’ environments beyond our region principally by creating ways for people to fall in love with nature. Therefore, we ought to use our 22.5kms of river as an asset in the cause of bringing people closer to nature, instead of pretending that a small stretch of river surrounded by 360,000 people — book-ended by dams on every side — can ever truly be something we should honestly describe as ‘natural’.
In the end, I do not personally know whether we should fix the dam or not. But I suspect the least helpful thing for anyone to do is to continue framing this as a debate between ‘recreationists’ and ‘environmentalists’. At a fundamental level, virtually everyone here is arguing for the same outcome: a healthy, well-loved river, that is cherished by everyone in the community. How might this discussion be different if we were all to back up to our first principles and listen to one another? Unfortunately, the tenor of the debate in my city has led to the ‘people who love being in nature’ into contention with the ‘people who love protecting nature’ — as if these must be two fundamentally different, ideologically opposed camps.