Size Really Matters

By Dr. Robert Thorson

In the history of environmental policy, the construction of dams on rivers is always a win-lose situation, with one species — Homo sapiens — getting the gains and the rest of the ecosystem getting whatever comes next. It’s also a win-lose situation in which one group of humans gains at the expense of others.

This is the tale of two submerged landscapes, one tiny, the other colossal.

The tiny submergence was at the Valley Forge section of Weston, dubbed the “Village of the Dammed” by author James Lomuscio. This Yankee village was drowned in 1940 by the Bridgeport Hydraulic Works to create the Saugatuck Reservoir.

The colossal submergence will soon be above the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China. The dam will do much to control downstream flooding and to provide electricity for China’s economic development. This project made a minor news splash last month when, after nearly 90 years of scheming and 13 years of construction, the final batch of concrete was poured in what is now the world’s largest hydroelectric and flood control dam, and one that will have enormous effects.

Valley Forge was settled in the early 1700s by emigrants from the Pilgrim country of Plymouth, Mass. Using the flow of the Saugatuck River to power its forges and mills, it became a classic 19th- century industrial village, producing cast iron for the plows and other tools that would help transform the New England countryside from old-growth forest to the more open agricultural landscape of early America.

Then along came P.T. Barnum of circus fame, and Samuel Senior, successive presidents of the Bridgeport Hydraulic Co. Senior used the power of eminent domain to evict village residents against their will and drown their town. They were the original losers.

The original winners were the shoreline towns, now with more water available for fire protection and other uses. Although the impacts on the environment were catastrophic at first, gradually, the ribbon-shaped reservoir and its forested fringe became an undeveloped oasis for wildlife and for nearby residents who increasingly used the land for recreation.

Then, during the 1990s, the Bridgeport Hydraulic Co. tried to sell the adjacent Trout Brook Valley, land originally taken by eminent domain, for private development. A successful effort to stop the sale, led by actor and philanthropist Paul Newman, argued that the Bridgeport Hydraulic Co. is not a real estate company and should not unfairly benefit from the sale of lands taken by force. Now it was the water company that lost and the local residents (human and natural) who won.

Throughout this flip-flop of winners and losers, the scale of the Saugatuck Reservoir Project has been appropriate for the landscape and for the flood and sediment flows of the river that feeds it.

The Three Gorges Dam, however, is way off-scale. By 2009, when the reservoir is complete, the dam will displace at least 1.2 million residents and permanently alter the environment of central China. As China’s largest construction project since the Great Wall, the dam now looms more than 500 feet above the valley floor, spans a gorge more than 7,000 feet across and contains more than 26 million cubic meters of concrete — more than twice that of the second- largest dam in the world, the Amazon’s Taipu dam in Brazil.

But Three Gorges is more than a dam. It’s also the largest system of locks in the world, designed to bring ocean-going ships more then 1,500 miles inland to create a shipping port in the middle of the country.

This is akin to putting a port like Oakland, Calif., in South Dakota. The dam will also create one of the world’s largest reservoirs and will inundate nearly 400 square miles of the earth’s surface.

Critics of the Three Gorges Dam, including many Chinese, fear the unintended consequences that will almost certainly result. The winners and losers aren’t sorted out. What worked well at a small scale in the stone-edged landscape of Connecticut will not work as well at a larger scale in the more volatile landscape of China.