Nature and the Natural

(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.

20 thoughts on “Nature and the Natural

  1. There is no environmental case for fixing the dam because an operational structure results in the ecocide of the sensitive and COSEWIC identified Species at Risk between the dam and the forks. Fixing the dam will be a waste of taxpayer money better spent on making measurable improvements to our infrastructure to completely eliminate the hundreds of millions of liters of untreated wastewater that is released into the river. Impounding this wastewater along with all the other agricultural, residential and commercial sources of pollution creates a public health and safety risk within the reservoir within a functional dam and contradicts our commitments to do our part to reduce toxic blue-green algae in the Great Lakes. An environmentalist thinks of the environment first and speak up for the creatures and systems that cannot defend themselves from human activity.

  2. There are plenty of reports and studies that were completed in 2015 showing the presence of identified species at risk by the UTRCA. This information was relayed to both the DFO and MNRF and there is a deadline of Dec. 2016 for the City to deliver a plan to those agencies outlining how they will resolve fish passage efficiency and attraction issues over the lowered doors along with how they could protect the habitat of the turtles, mussels, birds, fish and plants between the dam and Harris Park. No plan, no permits, no dam. It’s that simple… aka the “showstopper” that not only will prevent the dam from ever being repaired but would also complicates any associated projects like Back to the River that suggest the dam needs to be fixed for aesthetic and recreational purpose. The other fact is that there are no lost business or recreational opportunities being realized without a functional dam… Plenty of places to paddle canoes safely including the coves, westminster ponds and the river itself. The LCC should be back in the city… just operating different. Point to point canoeing from Harris to Springbank Parks, good parking and accessible launches with canoes for rent and bicycles to ride the trails back upstream. Green, healthy and it supports all the City objectives with killing the inhabitants of the river that cannot speak up.

    • Hubert give it up and respect what this blog states . Your worst allie is Barry Wells .. James has an opinion and your Angler group has bombarded him with negative thinking and false facts. He set out to look at a prospective giving his thoughts and you react in a very negative way.

      • It is encouraging to see that the city has voted in favour of repairing the dam in the latest two LFP polls! When another Environmental Assessment has been completed on the river it will show that the dam is not responsible for polluting the river.

      • Barry, I have some respect for the approach that James has taken. He’s looking at it from all angles and welcoming different perspectives. It would be silly to give up this point when it clearly looks like the “One River” holistic EA will not pass council vote on Mar. 22nd and that the majority of councillors would rather decommission the dam. The Free press isn’t making the decision and their polls are meaningless. Our organization had to provide proof of all signatures on both petitions and joint letters to council. From what I have heard there are legitimate and escalated concerns regarding your misrepresentation of both the Waterkeeper and Riverkeeper groups along with First Nations communities downstream.

        • Hi Robert,
          Actually there were two LFP polls, both in favour of fixing the dam. One is at 64% and the other is at 61%. The EA will give the city councilors the information they need to make an informed decision about fixing Springbank Dam. Why would they vote against obtaining the information that they need to make an informed decision?

          • Please don’t believe those polls. They can be easily manipulated. All it would take is one crafty teenager, or somebody that wants to spend a few hours manipulating a poll that isn’t relevant. The two prior polls showed Londoners wanted the dam decommissioned. I can’t see how there could be a shift in the other direction. The two polls I’m referring to were prior to the Urban League decision to decommission and the public meeting at the City.

      • Barry Callow: Even the three First Nations’ communities downstream of the Springbank Dam want the dam decommissioned. OPPOSED TO SPRINGBANK DAM: In addition to Irene Mathyssen, the NDP MP for London-Fanshawe, former Mayor Joni Baechler, former Coun. Nancy Branscombe, former Coun. Cheryl Miller, Ward 1 Coun. Michael Van Holst, Ward 2 Coun. Bill Armstrong, Ward 3 Coun. Mo Salih, Ward 6 Coun. Phil Squire, Ward 9 Coun. Anna Hopkins, Ward 10 Coun. Virginia Ridley, Ward 11 Coun. Stephen Turner, Ward 13 Coun. Tanya Park, Mike Bloxam, chair of the City’s Advisory Committee on the Environment, Dean Sheppard, executive director of ReForest London, lifelong environmentalists David and Winnifred Wake, UTRCA Species-at-Risk Biologist Scott Gillingwater and former Urban League of London president Gloria McMinn-McTeer (2000-2003), the following groups have come out swinging for the permanent decommissioning or removal of this costly but unnecessary dam in the Thames River, due to the dam’s negative effects on the river’s ecosystem, both in London and downstream:

        The Chippewas of the Thames First Nation; Oneida Nation of the Thames; Munsee-Delaware Nation; World Wildlife Fund-Canada; Ontario Rivers Coalition; Thames River Anglers Association; Nature London; Trout Unlimited Canada; Ontario Federation of Anglers & Hunters; Earthroots; Western Ontario Fish & Game Protective Association; Forest City Fly Fishing Club; the Urban League of London; the City of London’s Advisory Committee on the Environment; the City of London’s Trees and Forests Advisory Committee and the Byron Community Organization.

      • With the City of London’s Civic Works Committee voting unanimously 6-0 on Jan. 9, 2017 to support the EA consultant’s and City staff’s recommendation to decommission the unnecessary Springbank Dam, City Council is now poised to vote 15-0 in favour of decommissioning the Springbank Dam.

        Your worst ally, Barry Callow, is being on the wrong side of the overwhelming science-based evidence that the Thames River and its ecosystem, including species-at-risk, from Byron to the river forks are far healthier without a working Springbank Dam.

        There’s an opportunity here for you and your misguided sidekick, Simon Tanner, to learn something. Read the EA reports.

  3. A repaired dam will only benefit the canoe and rowing club. Let’s not say that the only way to canoe on the Thames and have people ‘return to the river’ is with a repaired dam. The number of people that canoe the Thames are substantially less than those who walk it banks or drive their cars over the number of bridges in the city. Those people unfortunately are not as vocal as the small number of canoeist. The notion that people don’t care about the river because they can’t go down and appreciate it via canoeing or rowing is nonsense. I fish the Thames regularly and I would say almost every time I do I come across someone canoeing (with smiles and a friendly wave)
    Finally to say that one dam on a short stress of water will not affect things is short sighted. By this same logic one shouldn’t bother recycling every piece of paper or choose organic options. Why bother when the majority don’t. Please don’t consider yourself an environmentalist if choose the line of thought.

    • I thoroughly agree that the principle goal of involving people with the river should not be necessarily conflated with the specific condition of the dam. That’s an important clarification, and I’m thankful to you and a few other Facebook commenters for highlighting it.

  4. James. We have spent 7 million dollars on this white elephant to date that we know of. $4.2 million was the original budget. How much is it going to cost to fix???? Then let’s factor in the Southbank Erosion Protection plans from the original EA that have yet to be completed. Add in the fact that the Biotactic Fish Monitoring reports clearly show that fish passage has been compromised and the dam is a barrier. The pre & post construction monitoring results prove it. The SETC agreement with the COL was NO NET LOSS or they will be required to mitigate. Lastly, the islands that once were present below the dam were deemed nursery habitat by MNR and DFO. The new gate design has increased the velocity going over the them which in turn has obliterated this habitat. Can you say H.A.D.D. The city is going to have to mitigate this too. Then species at risk come in to play and it is another hurdle that the city is going to have to overcome. You get my drift??? Dam the river for what?? Historical Expectations of Recreational Use by a select few user groups while sacrificing the environment. The canoeing and rowing community have yet to provide 1 piece of scientific evidence which would support fixing the dam. All we get are their emotional pleas which is a pretty sad state of affairs.

    • Thanks for the comment Randy. One thing that I did know before researching for this post was just how many times Springbank has been dammed, undammed, and redammed over and over again since the 1870s. One gets the impression that the story we are living at the moment is one that has been rehearsed and rehashed many times over. This is all to say, I think you make a terrific point that taking a long-term view is very important here, and it’s a perspective I would want to reiterate indeed.

  5. James,
    Your case is well stated. Urban “green space” has a long history, and is considered essential for the “health” (including mental health) for urban populations. As you know, I’ve had to privilege of biking along the river. I can’t imagine the city NOT wanting to keep/reclaim this area. It is clear that these 22 km won’t “destroy” the ecosystem, and my very well enhance it. I hope the fine people of London, Ontario rebuild the dam while being as ecologically conscious as possible.

  6. Great article James. Blaming Springbank Dam for polluting the Thames River is like filling you pool up with raw sewage and then blaming the concrete walls of the pool for making it worse. Robert Corey’s article in the London Free Press “Thames Cleanup Real Priority” on Feb 13 2016 cites the real problem: “The Thames is horribly polluted from above Fanshawe Dam by factory farming and manuring of fields.”

  7. Hello James,

    I would like to start with stating that I appreciate your article; it is nice to see somebody critical of both sides of an argument, as I find this more and more rare as of late.

    To start, I just want to address the “natural river” idea. I completely agree with you that we cannot make the river natural ever again – once man has touched nature, it is no longer natural! That being said, I also agree with the ‘healthy river’ points that you make, though I find that the ‘healthy river’ that you seem to be referring to happens to be the same ideas as many of the ‘naturalists” views that you speak to. I don’t think the majority of those wanting the dam decommissioned are hoping for an entirely natural river, as it’s no longer feasible, but are speaking on behalf of those that cannot – the endangered species’ that have flourished since the dam has been out of use.

    In regards to the social and environmental costs whether or not the dam is decommissioned, I think that is more where the debate lies. In my opinion, the social and environmental benefits in recommissioning the dam are purely recreational. Not only recreational, but conveniently recreational – as there is a State of the Art recreational facility at the Fanshawe Conservation Area which is less than a 10km drive away from the downtown core. The drawbacks, on the other hand, are that the entire list of different species that you listed (i.e. the 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].) will disappear again from the river, as they had done previously. So my question to you (and anybody else who is interested in responding) is what is more important: the more convenient recreational space in the city’s core, or the lives of the species that I just listed who all contribute to our ecosystem?

    In my opinion, keeping these species in the river (by decommissioning the dam) would make the Thames River the ‘healthy river’ that you later refer to in your work.

    In regards to needing more people who canoe, kayak, etc. to use the river so that future generations continue to care about the river and ‘keep it healthy,’ I believe that if the younger generations see what happened to the environment in the past when the dam was in place should teach them to keep it healthy, and they can use the river at Fanshawe for recreation. Further, there was the suggestion of making the old dam into a bridge which solves making the dam a focal point so that others see it as something to take care of.

    Thank you, again, for your response. I look forward to a reply if possible!

    • Thanks for the comment Ryley. I really appreciate your thoughts. I agree that species variation and biodiversity must be fundamental aspects to the decisions we must make about local ecology structures. But we must keep in mind that our own houses, parks, roads, food production, and municipal infrastructure displaces many species too. This is not a specific phenomenon to the river: weigh human utility against biodiversity in almost everything we do.

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