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American waterways: Go with the flow

The pleasures of the undammed

CATEECHEE TRAIL ends in a loop in the north-west corner of the tiny mill town of Cateechee in South Carolina. If you park along that loop and peer over the side of a steep hill, you can see something that nobody in the entire 20th century saw: Twelve Mile River, flowing unimpeded. The creek was dammed in the late 19th century to provide power to the area’s lumber and cotton mills. The dams remained in place long after the mills were closed—but instead of providing power, they were just impeding the flow of water and natural sediments. That stopped the creek from burying sediment contaminated by Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCBs) from an old capacitor plant upstream. By court order two dams along the creek were removed earlier this year.They are in good company. In this century’s first decade, 410 American dams were removed. While that is just a small portion of the more than 84,000 dams in America, the rate of removal is growing; more than twice as many dams were removed between 2000 and 2010 than in any other decade. Like the Twelve Mile River dams,…

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