On June 26, 1959, Queen Elizabeth II and President Dwight D. Eisenhower boarded the Royal Yacht Brittania and floated through the gates of the St. Lawrence Seaway, declaring the series of locks and canals officially open.
The seaway, which was jointly financed by the United States and Canada, cost $470 million to build, and the construction took five years to complete. While British explorers never found the Northwest Passage that they hoped might run through the North American continent, in the 20th century the United States and Canada showed that they could make their own navigable waterway, if not all the way to the Pacific, at least to the Great Lakes. Since 1959, more than 2.5 billion tons of cargo, worth more than $375 billion, has traveled along the seaway.
But now the seaway’s years may be near their end. Environmental groups have advocated ending shipping along the waterway or closing it altogether. When engineers plotted how to allow ships to carry their goods to and from Great Lakes ports, they didn’t consider that steel and timber would not be the only things in ships’ hulls. Vessels traveling from foreign ports, through the open seas, and into the Great Lakes have brought with them about one third of the 186 invasive species now in the Great Lakes.
The critters primarily travel in the ballast (water used to maintain a ship’s balance when it is not carrying cargo) of oceangoing ships. Over the years, the International Maritime Organization, the U.S. Coast Guard and numerous states have moved to regulate ballast contents in an effort to prevent the movement of invasive species.
While it is possible that shipping practices can be cleaned up enough to stop the threat to the Great Lakes, it is unclear if the effort is worthwhile. In 2009, only 40 million tons of goods are expected to pass through the seaway, compared to 75 million tons at its peak in 1979. Oceangoing vessels account for only 5 percent of Great Lakes shipping. The seaway’s heyday is over, but the hazard it presents to the waters of the Great Lakes continues.
The many large-scale public works projects of the 20th century are monuments to ingenuity and to a deep commitment to harness nature’s power in order to improve human life. But, in many cases, what we knew then about the functioning of natural systems was just enough to get ourselves in trouble. We knew enough to take on Herculean tasks, rerouting waterways and turning the flow of rivers into a flow of electricity, but we did not always know what the consequences of our actions would be.
Along the Snake River, a major tributary of the Columbia that passes through Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, four dams, built between the late 1950s and the early 1970s, provide 5 percent of the region's power and allow ships carrying grain to travel along the river. But, while boats can pass, salmon cannot. Only a few years after the dams were built, salmon populations began to fall rapidly, and, by the mid-1990s, the populations of four types of salmon had been declared endangered or threatened. With drought, warmer water temperatures and other dams hindering salmon in rivers farther south, the Snake River system is one of the best hopes for West Coast salmon in the Lower 48 states.
The government has spent more than $8 billion trying to help the salmon get around the dams. In some cases, salmon have even been loaded onto trucks and barges and carried around the obstacles. But the Environmental Protection Agency argued as early as 2000 that disabling the dams is the only way to protect the fish.
The movement to reconsider old public works projects gained momentum a decade ago with the removal of the Edwards Dam on Maine’s Kennebec River. Federal authorities forced the dam’s reluctant owners to dismantle the 162-year-old structure after concluding that its economic benefits were far outweighed by the environmental damage it caused.
Of course, not all of our large public works projects should be undone. The question we are likely to confront repeatedly is whether a project that may or may not have been sound when it was built is still justified today.
There are plenty of self-described environmentalists who oppose relatively clean projects such as solar and wind energy farms, and the transmission lines that would bring clean power to places where it is needed. By reducing our alternative energy options, resistance to relatively low-impact projects actually makes it more difficult to tackle existing, bigger problems.
Just as those who built the dams, canals, roads and bridges of the last century used their technological knowledge to bring about vast improvements to the quality of life, we must now use our skills to do the same. Old projects whose environmental costs outweigh their benefits should come down, but we must also begin work on new projects that can compensate. People are not going to sit in dark houses so salmon can swim freely.