Our story– a strong defense of our river

American Rivers recently put out a call for river stories to describe how rivers connect us.  Here’s a brief account of how a plan for a dam and reservoir triggered a grassroots response that engaged the community and defeated the ill-conceived plan. Other coalition participants will have their individual takes, but here’s mine.

Our river story reminds me of a pertinent river quote: “A strong defense begins with a strong offense. Go. Do.“  (borrowing from Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.,  founder and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance

When the local Corporation for Economic Development (CED) announced its plan in early 2013, it had been created entirely by financially-driven “stakeholders” and made no attempt to gather broader community input.  If they had consulted the community, they might have saved themselves, and subsequently the state taxpayer, thousands if not millions of dollars.  Of course, the promoters were paid for their time while the defenders volunteered their own time and money.

Shortly after the plan was announced, a coalition, comprised largely of a broad array of community, professional, and conservation-minded perspectives, was formed to analyze the plan  The Heart of the River coalition worked diligently for nearly 2.5 years to educate the communities and their elected officials about the destructive effects of the plan and its failure to demonstrate a need for public water supply (which was a transparent tack-on rationale after the CED realized that a destructive private economic development project would not receive environmental regulatory approval).   In addition, the plan received the scrutiny and critique from several respected policy experts from nearby universities.

The Heart of the River participants worked throughout the  2.5 year period—researching and analyzing, hosting community forums, organizing educational events and news conferences, networking with sympathetic organizations, testifying at public meetings, and even sponsoring community art exhibits, in an effort to bring light to the issue and combat the well-funded pro-plan propaganda.  All of this paid off in summer of 2015 when 2 town councils (Daleville and Yorktown) and the Delaware County council voted down a proposal to join in a reservoir planning agency.  This effectively killed the plan at its intended location.  We shall see if the CED revises its plan by moving it to another location.

Several important factors were key to our success:  A well-researched and articulated effort which, as the word got out, continuously attracted folks w/ diverse backgrounds, community connections, and skill sets.  Our effort was funded initially by passing the hat and donation jars, and later was able to attract several large grants from established philanthropic interests.

Personal passion and resolve to fight the plan were also a major contributor.  This passion reminds of Tom Dustin’s observation that free-flowing rivers justify a strong (“junk-yard dog”) defense–

”In a 1996 book entitled The Call of the River, author Page Stegner provides this characterization: ‘The call of the river is a complexity of motion and sound which extracts from mere mortals  the wildest diversity of emotional response.  Awe, dread, tranquility, devotion, ecstasy.  The river is an abstraction of universal force’. 

                Yes, the call is all of that, but it is still more.  One does not have to conquer a river to feel its tug upon our souls; in the very end one is not even required to paddle it to feel its magic.  As with a distant wilderness that we may never see, it is a fulfillment to know at least  that it is there,  and with that knowledge as our main reward, we are justified to fight like junkyard dogs to assure present and future generations that a good representation of these creations remain to enrich all life by its very existence”.        Thomas E. Dustin, Indiana Izaak Walton League, 1998 speech in Indianapolis

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