Dam Removals on a Roll Across USA

WASHINGTON, DC, December 13, 1999 (ENS) - Removing small hydroelectric dams is often the most effective way to help the environment and to save money, says a coalition of U.S. environmental groups.

More than 465 dams have been removed across the United States, and the restored rivers produce better fish habitat, yield financial savings, improve public safety and revitalize communities, according to the report released today by American Rivers, Friends of the Earth and Trout Unlimited.

"When they hear how successful these dam removals were, we hope more communities, dam owners and natural resource managers will consider removing dams on their local rivers as one reasonable way to restore them to health and revitalize the communities along their banks," says Margaret Bowman of American Rivers.

The report, "Dam Removal Success Stories: Restoring Rivers through Selective Removal of Dams that Don't Make Sense," includes 25 detailed case studies of dam removals. The groups call it the most comprehensive review to date of the history and benefits of dam removal in the United States.

A 26th case study, detailing the removal of the Fort Edward Dam on the Hudson River, while not a success story, provides lessons about some mistakes to avoid when removing a dam.


Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt (Photo courtesy Dept. of the Interior)
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, began swinging a sledgehammer to remove selected dams across the country in the summer of 1996. The U.S. Department of the Interior, after helping supervise the most intensive flurry of dam-building in world history, is changing course," Babbitt wrote in a guest editorial in the November 29, 1998 edition of the Wisconsin State Journal. "Today, we and other branches of the federal government are encouraging the selective destruction of certain dams, public and private, that cause exceptional environmental damage."

Babbitt wrote, "What’s igniting this movement is not the federal bureaucracy. It is community spirit. It is farmers, utility company officials, civic boosters, fishermen, conservationists, aquatic biologists, Native Americans and others. Together these Americans are finding promise, not peril, in the unleashing of rivers. By removing dams, they are diversifying their economics, healing watersheds, reducing Endangered Species Act headaches and restoring beauty, vigor and recreation to their downtown centers."

The report examines dams that were removed in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. Different types of dams are examined, including hydroelectric, water supply and irrigation.


Dam across Wisconsin's Baraboo River (Photo courtesy American Rivers)
"As society's needs continue to change, more and more dam owners are seeing removal as the best approach for dealing with old, unsafe or uneconomical dams," adds Sara Johnson of Trout Unlimited."As this report shows, selective removal of dams is a cost-effective river restoration tool that can be a 'win-win-win' situation-for dam owners, for fish, and for the local community."

The report examines dams that were removed because their negative impacts on rivers and riverside communities outweighed their benefits. Many were blocking fish migration and degrading water quality, while others were abandoned and threatened public safety. The report found that dam removal is often less expensive than repair, particularly where the benefits of the dam were marginal or non-existent.


Baraboo River after dam removal (Photo courtesy American Rivers)
"Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the hundreds of dams that have been removed in the United States, despite the growing national policy debate on the subject," says Shawn Cantrell of Friends of the Earth. "This report provides valuable information on the ecological, safety, and economic benefits that accompanied past dam removal efforts."

Restoring rivers improves wildlife habitat and water quality, which often leads to economic benefits and improved quality of life for communities near the rivers, concludes the report. Tourism, boating and fishing improved when dams are removed and, in many cases, decommissioning also restored a community's connection to its river. The case studies highlight consistent collaboration and support from local communities and demonstrate a variety of financing options.

"Contrary to popular belief, dam removal is not new and radical," adds Bowman. "This report shows that for decades dam removal has been an accepted approach for dam owners and communities to deal with unsafe, unwanted, or obsolete dams."

There are 75,000 dams of at least two meters (6.5 feet) in height on U.S. rivers, and tens of thousands of smaller dams, according to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. "Seventy-five thousand dams means we have been building on average, one dam a day, including weekends, since the Declaration of Independence."

These facilities can block or slow river flows, reduce river levels, block or inhibit fish passage, obstruct movement of nutrients, alter water temperature, low oxygen levels, limit public access to the river, and harm the aesthetics and natural character of a setting, according to the new report.


Neuse River before dam removal (Photo courtesy American Rivers unless noted)
"In some places the case for removing a dam is so easy to make that one wonders why it took so long," Babbitt said today." Last December I took a sledgehammer to the Quaker Neck Dam on the Neuse River in North Carolina. As dams go, Quaker Neck isn't much; it's only six feet high and it doesn't generate power. But to the American shad trying to spawn upstream, that six feet might as well be six hundred, blocking off 900 miles of upstream spawning waters. Now biologists and engineers have figured out an alternative water diversion method and the dam has come down. And, just a year later, the shad are spawning seventy miles upstream all the way to the city of Raleigh."


Neuse River after dam removal (Photo courtesy American Rivers unless noted)
Babbitt believes that flood control - one of the main reasons for building many dams - has not been accomplished by dam construction. "Flood damage in American has increased, not decreased, despite billions invested in big dams," he wrote.

Babbitt says all dams must justify their existence today. "I do believe we should challenge dam owners everywhere - including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies - to defend themselves, to demonstrate by hard facts, not sentiment and myth, that continued operation of a dam is in the public interest. Often, this will mean adopting more environmentally friendly operating regimes, such as we have done at Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona to begin to restore the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park. In some cases, it will mean actual removal of dams themselves," Babbitt wrote.

In the history of dam removals, the Fort Edward Dam experience is in many ways a testimony of what not to do, the conservation groups report details. Fort Edward Dam was built in 1898 on the Hudson River, 54 miles upstream of Albany, New York. By 1969, the condition of the dam was poor, and engineering studies showed that repair or replacement of the project was uneconomical. The owner, Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation, decided in 1971 to remove the structure to avert the danger of dam failure.

Inadequate research and engineering analyses were conducted prior to removal of the dam in 1973. As a result, several tons of PCB-laden sediments from behind the dam were released downstream following dam removal, adversely affecting navigation, fish and wildlife, water quality, flood control, and public health. Large-scale cleanup and restoration efforts were required to address the serious environmental and economic damage resulting from the Fort Edward Dam removal.


Grand Coulee dam (Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)
"The next big test for river restoration is approaching on the lower Snake River and its four salmon killing dams," Babbitt said today. "The Columbia-Snake is one of the most industrialized river systems in America. The largest of its dams, Grand Coulee, cuts off more than a thousand miles of salmon streams in Washington and British Columbia. Bonneville Dam, dedicated by President Roosevelt in 1937, initiated the damming of the lower river. After that the dams marched relentlessly up river - the Dalles, John Day, McNary, Priest Rapids," Babbitt said.

"Through all this dam building the salmon managed to hang on, continuing their annual migration rites up the Columbia, then into the Snake and on into the Salmon River system of Idaho. Fish ladders helped some. Hatcheries were built by the dozen to boost production of declining stocks and offset fish ground up in turbines and eaten by predators in the long stretches of slack water."

Dam proponents point to the value of U.S. dams. For instance, the 550 foot high Grand Coulee Dam built during the 1930s across the Columbia River in central Washington state is the largest concrete dam in North America and the third largest producer of electricity in the world. It supplies electricity to 11 western states and irrigation to over 500,000 acres of farmland in the Columbia Basin. A laser light show at the dam during warm weather provides a combination of entertainment and history of the dam. Excellent fishing in Lake Roosevelt formed behind the dam is advertised by the Grand Coulee Dam Area tourist authority.

"Removal is not appropriate for all or even most" of the dams in the U.S., the report issued by the conservation groups acknowledges. It suggests that operation of these facilities could be improved to minimize their environmental and societal impacts, while still generating electricity, irrigating land or controlling floods. Less than one percent of all dams are even under consideration for removal.

"However, some dams cause such significant damage that no amount of improved operation will alleviate the harm," and the report concludes that, "for these dams, where the impacts of the dam outweigh its benefits, dam removal is a reasonable and viable option."