As the steadily rising reservoir lapped at their fields, villagers rushed Monday to uproot corn, sweet potatoes and vegetables they planted just weeks ago.
Engineers had posted signs showing where the water level will be when the reservoir, which started to fill on June 1, reaches its highest point. But in a sign of the confusion surrounding the world's biggest hydroelectric project, and by sheer force of rural tradition, many planted in fields they had been told were doomed.
"Some farmers didn't believe the signs and didn't believe what the government said," said Ding Xiangui, a farmer in Qutang, a hillside village in an inlet less than half a mile from the entrance to the famously scenic Qutang Gorge.
"They thought their fields were really high and wouldn't be reached by water," Ding said.
The Three Gorges Dam is unprecedented in the scale of both its construction and the dislocation imposed on people whose families have lived for centuries along the densely populated Yangtze.
Its 254-square-mile reservoir will flood scores of small cities, towns and villages - all now evacuated, their buildings torn down or stripped of doors and other fittings and abandoned to the mercy of the river.
The government is moving about 1.3 million people to higher ground, some as far away as Shanghai, 600 miles to the east.
Chinese leaders say the country needs the dam to produce power and control chronic flooding on the Yangtze.
Critics say both goals would have been better served by a series of smaller dams. They warn the project could worsen pollution by trapping sewage and industrial waste, and that a dam break could lead to catastrophic flooding.
Construction went ahead despite complaints about the $22 billion cost, forced relocations, environmental damage and flooding of temples and other cultural and archaeological sites.
The government has promised to pay for new homes and farmland for relocated residents. But some villagers complain the payments are inadequate, and in a few cases accuse local officials of embezzling money meant for them.
Ding, the farmer in Qutang, about 120 miles upstream from the dam, once had a vegetable field of some 36,000 square feet. Now, he said, all but 1,300 square feet of it is under water.
"The government relocation program wasn't carried out in this village, so we have no money," he said.
The reservoir has been rising by six to 12 feet a day since June 1, when 19 of the dam's 22 sluice gates were shut in a ceremony shown live on national television.
The 630-foot-tall concrete wall is nearly 1 1/2 miles wide.
There have been no reports of drownings in the eight days since the reservoir started to fill and no indications of any official efforts to prevent accidental drownings. However, as the rising water saturates hillsides, sections in some areas have collapsed into the water, creating a potential drowning hazard for those who remain behind to try to salvage crops or other property.
Even as the waters crept up Monday, laborers were carrying out last-minute demolition work on lighthouses and other tall buildings due to be engulfed, tearing them down so they won't be a hidden danger to ships.
The Yangtze is one of China's most important transportation arteries, and shipping is to continue through the reservoir, with giant ship locks built to carry freighters and ferries around the immense concrete wall. Shipping has been banned near the dam since April 10 but is to resume June 16.
China's leaders exalt the dam as a sign of the country's high-tech prowess, but the demolition was being carried out by brute force, with hammers and pickaxes. Bricks and other salvaged materials were carried away in baskets slung across the backs of donkeys.
The scene Monday in Qutang of farmers rushing to salvage what they could from their fields was repeated for miles along the shores of the reservoir.
Li Xiaojun, a farmer in the village of Ping'an, said he was losing his sweet potato patch to the reservoir. His neighbors were harvesting plants that were too young to produce edible potatoes but had leaves that could be boiled and eaten.
Li said because the dam is meant to benefit the nation, he didn't want to blame local officials for confusion over the water line.
"We only hope the government will make proper arrangements for the local people," he said.
By Greg Baker