In this two part blog series piece 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.
What to Do About Dams
Typically, the decision to remove a dam is made by varying entities, depending on the regulatory oversight of the dam. In most cases, the dam owner itself is the decision-maker, often deciding that the costs of continuing to operate and maintain the dam are more than removing the dam. State dam safety offices can sometimes order a dam to be removed or lowered if there are major safety concerns. State fish and wildlife offices and environmental organizations are also often involved in the decision-making, particularly when the goals of the project include restoration of habitat for migratory and resident aquatic species. If the dam in question is a hydropower facility, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission also has the power to order a hydropower dam under their jurisdiction to be removed for both environmental and safety reasons.
Laura Wildman, P.E., dam removal and river restoration expert and Director of Princeton Hydro’s New England Regional Office, says, “Identifying key barriers early on and understanding which of those barriers might have potential solutions versus remain an impediment, is critical to prioritizing limited ecological restoration resources.”
The careful formulation and communication of the benefits for dam removal specific to each project, adequate education of the public, and stakeholder involvement are incredibly important components to dam removal conflict resolution. As is an understanding that not all dams will or should be removed, and that the local community and stakeholders needs/concerns should be fully integrated into the decision-making process.
Key facets of stakeholder involvement, include:
- Initial Stakeholder Discussions: Gather information and input from all stakeholders involved
- Field Work & Initial Assessment: Know the project site inside and out, conduct an in-person inspection, and gather all of the initial data needed to have an informed discussion
- Report Back with Results, without Judgement: Share the current state of the dam with stakeholders & regulators, without implying any solution or recommendation
- Detailed Analysis, Feasibility & Alternatives Assessment: Collaboratively select alternative options, and include for a discussion of the alternative analysis process in the pre-application regulatory and stakeholder meetings
- Formal Regulatory Review w/ Public Meetings: Present solution and/or submit engineering design and permit applications to regulators, and host public meetings to inform the community about the timeline and status. Some public meetings are required as part of the regulatory process, however, it is important to keep the stakeholders involved in the process. So, additional meetings or presentations are recommend for true engagement.
- Implementation: If the solution is to remove or repair the dam, continue to update the community about the status and timeline of construction. Local residents, elected officials, and nonprofit groups could be your best allies in keeping everyone informed.
It’s crucial to keep stakeholders and general public informed throughout the process via regular social media and traditional media outreach. Successful projects are based on a transparent process that integrates the local community. It is the local community that then becomes the environmental stewards of the restored river system.
Analyzing Dams for Removal
There are few “easy” dam removal decisions. Most dams have both positive and negative impacts. The challenge in making a sound decision about whether or not to remove a dam is to identify all of the costs and benefits of keeping (and eventually repairing or replacing) that particular structure, as well as the costs and benefits of removing it, and balance the findings to determine the best option. It is important to ensure that the full range of costs and benefits are identified.
Working through the many issues involved in deciding to keep or remove a dam can offer surprising conclusions that can lead to a reasoned approach – reducing subjectivity and increasing objectivity. The key issues typically investigated include:
- Impounded sediment
- Infrastructure/utility impacts
- Current use (& economic value of dam)
- Environmental concerns & benefits
- Geomorphic equilibrium
- Public health & safety
- Flooding & hydrologic impacts
- Aesthetic & sentimental value
- Community concerns
- Sensitive or invasive species
- Water rights
- Cost & funding availability
When making a final decision, it’s important to critically examine all factors to understand the influences on the decision. No matter the final outcome, at least it will be a well-informed process, and the information and understanding gained can help shape future decisions.
Although each dam removal project is unique, we developed a standard process that we follow:
While there is often no definitive answer to a question about whether a particular dam should be removed, there is a right and wrong way to go about making a dam removal decision. A good dam removal/retention decision is one that is based on an assessment of all the facts, collaboration with all stakeholders, and objective criteria.
Princeton Hydro has designed, permitted, and overseen the reconstruction, repair, and removal of dozens of dams throughout the Northeast. To contact us and learn more about our fish passage and dam removal engineering services, visit: bit.ly/DamBarrier.
Revisit part-one of this blog series: