Interview with Helen Sarakinos, River Alliance of Wisconsin

Monday, December 15, 2008

1.Please provide a list and very short summary of the project(s) you have worked on and their status.

Big Spring Dam, Big Spring, WI - in process of removal
Nemahbin Roller Mill Dam, Bark R., WI - being contested
Udey's Dam, Crawfish R,, WI - still undecided
Woodley Dam, Apple RIver, WI - to be removed
many, many others...

2.When approaching a dam removal project, what is the first thing you have to know, the first step, the first thing one should tackle?

Is there a local voice willing to speak for the river? If you don't have a local champion, you don't have a prayer. No one wants to hear the city folks from Madison tell them what to do with their dam.

3.Considering all the cases you've encountered, what makes the strongest argument for removal?

It almost always comes down to money. But I've also come to realize that it also comes down to someone believing in the river that could be. It's a huge leap of faith to imagine a river where a lake used to be. If someone can imagine that, and it's a more affordable solution, then dam removal can happen.

4.In your campaign(s), how important was it to have alternatives or replacements for what was lost in dam re-operation or removal?

Depends on the service. Losing hydro power is a much bigger deal than losing the winter skating rink or goose pond. And it also depends on what is gained

5.What lessons have you learned?

In this part of the country, dams often don't provide many benefits to the communities around them. They're remnant dams, former mills. The ponds are shallow, scuzzy and marginal, the infrastructure is expensive to maintain. And yet, people decide to keep pouring money into these things. In this business, you have to understand that fear of change is a powerful motivator. The only person who likes change is a wet baby. People will choose the devil they know over the devil they don't. Choose your own pithy summary here, but it's true. There is a lot of fear to overcome in removing a dam, far out of proportion it feels, to the magnitude of change that will occur.

6.If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?

Let the locals who have gone through a dam removal themselves speak about the benefits of removal more than us.

7.Who are your river restoration heroes, and why?

Whoa. That's a tough one. I have to say that anyone of the many individuals who have have worked, conversation by conversation, day by day, to convince decision-makers and their neighbours that their river matters is a hero to me. At our heart, we (the River Alliance) are grassroots organizors and we are constantly inspired by local citizens who work their jobs, raise thjeir families and at the end of the day are still called to engage in sometihng bigger than themselves. 

8.Do you anticipate any repercussions for river restoration efforts from the financial crisis?

Cost may become an even stronger bottom line in repair-vs-removal decisions.

More information: 

Dam Removal: Learning from the Pros

WRR Dec. 2008

Helen Sarakinos
Director, River Restoration Programs
River Alliance of Wisconsin
306 E. Wilson, suite 2W
Madison, WI 53703