About those eels, Mr. Dunker

A follow-up to October column on Anguilla rostrata and Elliptio complanata

December 26, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

I would like to address a snarky letter from Mr. Robert L. Dunker Jr., of Catonsville. A Republican (and former Democrat), my dear Mr. Dunker expressed skepticism about the worthiness of a $4 million, taxpayer-funded project described in this space in late October, and he questioned my regard for facts.

Instead of challenging him to a duel, I thought I'd just write a column in response.

"I realize that as a columnist you have no obligation to check the facts," one of the many sentences in Mr. Dunker's letter began. "But I do not understand the logic of trying to alienate people who, aside from party label, might share your views on the husbanding of our natural resources."

I have no idea why Mr. Dunker would feel alienated by my column. In it, I expressed the Obamaesque hope — as icky as it may seem — that Republicans and Democrats might get along as well as the American eel and a certain fresh-water mussel. These aquatic animals have an amazing symbiosis. In their long migrations from the sea to rivers, eels pick up and carry mussel larvae on their skin. The hitchhiking larvae end up as adult mussels in river beds, where they filter enormous amounts of water for decades. So, the further eels can migrate, scientists believe, the greater the benefit to rivers.

A mere $4 million of the $787 billion stimulus package — the one Republicans denigrate as a waste of money — is being used to eliminate three old dams in the Patapsco River. If eels and mussels are allowed to spread further upriver, the Patapsco will become healthier. That's just one of several reasons given for the project. The dams are no longer needed and are unsafe. Had money been available, they would have been eliminated years ago and the Patapsco would have been restored to its pre-industrial state.

Mr. Dunker is skeptical; he's developed a mistrust of government efforts on the Patapsco. He raised some questions in his letter. Let me get back now with some answers.

1. "What will be the impact of releasing tons of sludge from behind the dams into the Chesapeake Bay?"

It's not sludge. Sludge is related to sewage or the oozy gunk dredged from the bottom of the Baltimore harbor. American Rivers, the conservation group spearheading the Patapsco project, and the Maryland Geological Survey did numerous tests behind the dams and found clean sand and gravel, most of which will never reach the bay. In the short term, there will be a loss of aquatic insect life, said Serena S. McClain, director of restoration programs for American Rivers. But within a year or so, the bugs will be back, and in greater diversity. "We've seen this in similar dam removal projects around the country," Ms. McClain said.

2. "I am unaware of any mussels in the lower Patapsco. Might that indicate that opening new territory in this particular river might be futile?"

There's considerable evidence that the Patapsco once had plenty of mussels. "Surveys we conducted with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found remnant shells as far upstream as the Daniels Dam," Ms. McClain said. "We are working with USFWS to develop a system for reintroducing these mussels to the Patapsco via the American eel. They are currently testing this out on the Susquehanna River, and if successful, we will work with them to try it on the Patapsco in the next year or two."

3. "To permit passage of the eels it is not necessary to remove the dams. Why not [knock a hole in the dam] to substantially reduce the cost of the project?" Merely breaching the dams won't restore the Patapsco to its historic best — and it won't eliminate the boating and swimming hazards presented by breached dams.

4. "I read that there has been a general decline in the eel population. … One thing for sure is that the recent decline in eels is NOT attributable to a dam that has been in place for over a hundred years."

I asked Ms. McClain about the science on this. "Dams have been shown to be directly responsible for the decline of American eel and a number of other species over the years," she said. "Dams block essential refuge for eels, limiting places they have where they can 'escape' other harms impacting them."

There you go, Mr. Dunker. I hope you've found this helpful. If you want to go fishing next year, give me a call.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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