Lake's story about more than dam

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By John Lawrence Hanson


The recently released documentary, “We Will Be Back: The Lake Delhi Story,” addressed hardly a fraction of the true story of the Delhi dam and the Maquoketa River.

Because the real story is not about the “lake” but rather the river that made it possible. By focusing first on the impoundment and the structures lining it, the filmmakers, and media who have highlighted it, have given the public a false impression.

The Maquoketa River was born with the retreat glaciers more than 300,00 years ago. Since its birth, the Maquoketa, like all our rivers, evolved to host a rich and dynamic web of life. The plant and animal life depended on a living river: a river that ebbed and surged seasonally. Specifically, they flowed like the river flowed; they coursed up and down its length to maximize their individual lives and that of their species.

That nearly timeless richness and rhythm flourished until the Maquoketa suffered a biological heart attack — the dam at Delhi. During the intervening 80 years, the health of the river, its water and wildlife struggled to survive. The ecological web of the Maquoketa decayed. The vitality of the river atrophied.

Wounds and sores multiplied in the water, predictable siltation inundated the impoundment, bacteria and filth flourished. And as disease may rob a human body of extremities, the pathology of the dam robbed the river of its living parts.


In 2010, the river roared. In 2010, the river regained its breath and beating heart when it surmounted the human impediment. The Maquoketa reunited two halves in 2010 and in doing so became biologically much more than the sum of it parts. The ancient rhythms and balance improved. The planned removal of dams on the Maquoketa in Manchester and Monticello would further the restoration of the river’s health.

Dams are passe. We built dams because we could, and because we did not know better. The science has clearly spoken that dams destroy the lives of rivers, of ancient biological systems that provided humans and animals with a wealth of biological life that was immeasurable and free.

The history of dams in the last 20 years has been one of removal. Look to Wisconsin, Maine and the Pacific Northwest, to name a few areas in where the local communities and governments have righted past wrongs and removed dams. Even the state of Iowa had allocated moneys to remove dams to enhance public safety as well as improving biological quality.


Current state law requires that dams, new or rebuilt, at least include a fish passage to mitigate biological damage. Yet, on top of millions in state welfare directed toward the rebuilding of Lake Delhi, lobbyists were able to get a legislative exemption for the project to avoid a fish passage. The wheels of “progress” are gaining momentum toward the goal of re-plugging the Maquoketa.

My abiding interest in this issue is solely about the quality and freedom of our inherent natural heritage. I feel like I am seeing a living and functioning entity about to be condemned, like an innocent man facing a death sentence for purely political reasons. I do feel sorry for all those whose summer patterns were disrupted. Yet the interference of a manufactured human activity does not compare with the devastation of a biological activity dating back eons.

We do have options for making the most of the Maquoketa River for people and wildlife, minus a dam. You can write to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission with your sentiments.

Iowa State University published a report of alternatives for review. Grass roots organizations, such as the Iowa Whitewater Coalition, have advocated for a free river and submitted ideas.

Surely, in 2013, we can recognize our place in the world, our community with all living things, and avoid repeating a past mistake by redividing a river through such a brutal instrument.

John Lawrence Hanson of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and has extensively studied law and science regarding the Delhi dam. Comments:

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