In the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd in 1999, it became painfully evident that the many dams in and around the state were woefully obsolete. Obsolescence occurs on a dam when it, either through climactic changes or antiquated designs, is unable to safely pass those infrequent yet highly destructive floods. Obsolescence can also occur when earthen embankments or concrete structures have deteriorated to the point of no longer providing safe resistance to seepage and impounding water behind the dam. The threat to the public living in the path of a potential flood wave that results when a dam suddenly bursts is varied but can have serious consequences and liabilities for dam owners.
Following the hurricane, the NJDEP Bureau of Dam Safety sent letters to all the dam owners in their records reminding them of their obligation to maintain their regulated structures in compliance with the Dam Safety Regulations. It was serendipitous that, at the same time, American Rivers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) started a program called the “Community-Based Restoration Program River Grants,” whereby grants were made available to remove obsolete dams to allow for migratory fish passage. The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) at the same time started looking to dam removals as meeting the restoration criteria for their funding programs.
These sources of funding were serendipitous as “dam safety compliance” not only means the renovation of a dam to meet current standards, but the elimination of the structure altogether is a means of compliance: no dam, no regulatory requirements. This grant opportunity opened up a whole new set of funding sources for dam owners that did not have the wherewithal or desire to maintain a highly regulated and risky structure.
The first dam to fall in the state for the benefits of dam safety compliance and migratory fish passage was the Harry Pursel Dam on the Lopatcong Creek in Phillipsburg in 2001. The next dams were the Gruendyke Mill Dam and Seber Dam on the Musconetcong River in Hackettstown under the leadership of the Musconetcong Watershed Association in the mid-2000s. Princeton Hydro was proud to be a part of each of those removals, and so many others – from North Carolina to Vermont.
Momentum for the removal of the thousands of obsolete dams across the country has increased; New Jersey has no dearth of them. There are plenty. However, as the recent economic recession has hit the private sector, so too has it impacted the availability of government funds to restore natural resources for the public good. Fortunately, other vehicles have been developed to fund dam removals.
In the past several years, Princeton Hydro completed the first dam removals used for the purpose of offsetting wetlands impacts, through projects in Hunterdon and Ocean County. Now, others are following in the path cleared by these projects to boldly use dam removal for the mitigation of wetlands impacts and other types of natural resource damages. NJDEP is formally in favor of removing dams in the name of restoration, and is even encouraging the removal of obsolete dams as such projects achieve many positive public safety and environmental goals.
It will be vitally important to maintain creativity for funding opportunities and promote public awareness of the importance of dam removal as a cost effective restoration tool. As a result, the removal of obsolete dams can continue well into the future. If you are interested in further understanding the regulations in NJ, benefits of removal, and examples illustrating dam removals, please visit the following sites:
Geoffrey M. Goll, P.E.
Vice President and Founding Partner
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