“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
There’s no evidence that philosopher George Santayana had stream channelization in mind when he wrote those words, but he should have.
Last weekend, after watching video clips and seeing photos of flash flooding in West Virginia’s Allegheny Highlands, I found myself hoping that landowners and government officials remember what happened after the catastrophic floods of 1985.
Hardly had the waters receded before politicians began promising residents along Dry Fork and the North Fork of the South Branch that they would “fix” the streams so such flooding would never happen again.
“The reason the streams flooded was because they had so many nasty ol’ boulders in them,” they told the landowners. “The best way to make sure the rivers never flood again is to bulldoze those nasty ol’ boulders up onto the banks and to straighten out as many curves as we can.”
And they did. They channelized miles and miles of Dry Fork and the North Fork. By the time they were finished, long stretches of stream bottom had been rendered wide, shallow, pan-flat, arrow-straight and boulder-free.
The bulldozer work also rendered them almost fish-free.
Trout and smallmouth bass have a hard time surviving in shallow ditches. There isn’t enough depth to shelter the fish from predators, there isn’t enough food to sustain them, and there are no rocks to provide relief from the current.
Worse, shallow waters warm up quickly in the sun. Warm water holds much less oxygen than cold water. Bluegills and bullheads don’t mind warm water; trout and smallmouth bass do. When the water gets too warm, smallmouths become lethargic. Trout die.
To be perfectly fair, the crews who channelized Dry Fork made at least a token effort to “create some fish habitat.” Every few hundred yards, they placed a Volkswagen-sized boulder dead center in the stream. Big whoop.
Fishing suffered for years after Dry Fork and the North Fork were channelized. After years of stocking trout into fallow waters, the Division of Natural Resources set about the unenviable task of turning those two big ditches back into places where fish could live and anglers could fish.
DNR crews moved boulders, a few at a time, back into the rivers. Moving the rocks wasn’t all that hard; placing them so they had the desired effect was a bit tricky.
The idea was to arrange the rocks in such a manner that high water pouring over and around them would scour deep pockets on the downstream side.
That’s exactly what happened; as the years passed, the boulders worked their magic. Both streams became good places for trout and smallmouths to live.
History has repeated itself. Last weekend’s rains not only sent floodwaters thundering through the Dry Fork and North Fork valleys, but also through the Seneca Creek valley and the Blackwater River canyon.
It’s probably only a matter of time before some politicos offer to “fix” those streams by channelizing them. That mustn’t happen.
With any luck, today’s officials will resist any temptation to turn the bulldozers loose. Channelization doesn’t fix problems, it creates them, and any flooding it prevents simply gets transferred farther downstream.
Heed the past, anglers. Don’t let someone repeat it.