Part One: Damned If You Do, Dammed If You Don’t: Making Decisions and Resolving Conflicts on Dam Removal

People have been building dams since prerecorded history for a wide variety of economically valuable purposes including water supply, flood control, and hydroelectric power. Back in the 1950s and 60s, the U.S. saw a boom in infrastructure development, and dams were being built with little regard to their impacts on rivers and the environment. By the 1970s, the rapid progression of dam building in the U.S. led researchers to start investigating the ecological impacts of dams. Results from these early studies eventually fueled the start of proactive dam removal activities throughout the U.S.

Despite the proven benefits of dam removal, conflicts are a prevalent part of any dam removal project. Dam removal, like any other social decision-making process, brings up tensions around economics and the distribution of real and perceived gains and losses. In this two part blog series, we take a look at addressing and preventing potential conflicts and the key factors involved in dam removal decision-making – to remove or not to remove.

Why We Remove Dams

The primary reasons we remove dams are safety, economics, ecology, and regulatory. There has been a growing movement to remove dams where the costs – including environmental, safety, and socio-cultural impacts – outweigh the benefits of the dam or where the dam no longer serves any useful purpose. In some cases, it’s more beneficial economically to remove a dam than to keep it, even if it still produces revenue. Sometimes the estimated cost of inspection, repair, and maintenance can significantly exceed the cost of removal, rendering generated projected revenue insignificant.

Safety reasons are also vital, especially for cases in which dams are aging, yet still holding large amounts of water or impounded sediment. As dams age and decay, they can become public safety hazards, presenting a failure risk and flooding danger. According to American Rivers, “more than 90,000 dams in the country are no longer serving the purpose that they were built to provide decades or centuries ago.” Dam removal has increasingly become the best option for property owners who can no longer afford the rising cost of maintenance and repair work required to maintain these complex structures.

The goal of removal can be multi-faceted, including saving taxpayer money; restoring flows for migrating fish, other aquatic organisms, and wildlife; reinstating the natural sediment and nutrient flow; eliminating safety risks; and restoring opportunities for riverine recreation.

Moosup River

Common Obstacles to Dam Removal

Dam removal efforts are often subjected to a number of different obstacles that can postpone or even halt the process altogether. Reasons for retaining dams often involve: aesthetics and reservoir recreation; water intakes/diversions; hydroelectric; quantity/quality of sediment; funding issues; cultural/historic values of manmade structures; owner buy-in; sensitive species; and community politics.

Of those common restoration obstacles, one of the more frequently encountered challenges is cost and funding. Determining who pays for the removal of a dam is often a complex issue. Sometimes, removal can be financed by the dam owner, local, state, and federal governments, and in some cases agreements are made whereby multiple stakeholders contribute to cover the costs. Funding for dam removal projects can be difficult to obtain because it typically has to come from a variety of sources.

Anecdotally, opposition also stems from fear of change and fear of the unknown. Bruce Babbitt, the United States Secretary of the Interior from 1993 through 2001 and dam removal advocate, said in an article he wrote, titled A River Runs Against It: America’s Evolving View of Dams, “I always wonder what is it about the sound of a sledgehammer on concrete that evokes such a reaction? We routinely demolish buildings that have served their purpose or when there is a better use for the land. Why not dams? For whatever reason, we view dams as akin to the pyramids of Egypt—a permanent part of the landscape, timeless monuments to our civilization and technology.”

Negative public perceptions of dam removal and its consequences can seriously impede removal projects. Although there are many reasons for the resistance to dam removal, it is important that each be understood and addressed in order to find solutions that fulfill both the needs of the environment and the local communities.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this blog series in which we explore strategies for analyzing dams and what goes into deciding if a dam should remain or be removed.

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