Dam removals in New Jersey – how did we get here?

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:

American Rivers – Dam Removals in NJ
Other dam removal resources from American Rivers
Clearing House for Dam Removal Information

Geoffrey M. Goll, P.E.
Vice President and Founding Partner

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3 thoughts on “Dam removals in New Jersey – how did we get here?

  1. I was very pleased to be a part of these initial efforts. The single most important part of these initial removals truly was serendipity. The Musconetcong Watershed Association was approached by the Gruendyke Dam owner looking for relief from the NJDEP dam safety requirements. The owner also wanted to eliminate the liability that the dam posed. The Association partnered with Princeton Hydro and started learning a bit about the business.

    We had a number of very fortuitous breaks. We looked for funding and found it to be a daunting challenge. Fortunately, the dam straddled two counties and we were able to connect with funding sources that enabled us to pay for the initial engineering and permitting. The dam owner was willing to sell the development rights on a portion of his land to one county agency. That got the ball rolling. The county on the other side of the river recognized that the dam posed a potential hazard to life and property and provided additional funding to remove the structure.

    The Watershed Association negotiated an agreement with a major residential developer who was clearing stone from a site within two miles of the Gruendyke dam. We needed about 1600 tons of large round rock in order to build weirs to stabilize sediment upstream of the Gruendyle and Seber dams in Hackettstown. The majority of the cost of stone purchase would have been trucking and it is extremely fortuitous that stone was located so close to the project. That good luck saved a huge amount of cost and heartache.

    Tim Dunne of USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service was instrumental in locating the stone at the construction site. Negotiations with the builder were conducted by Brian Cowden, an MWA volunteer who was State Council Vice Chair of Trout Unlimited. The efforts of these gentlemen on behalf of the river were extraordinary.

    The dam removal project was the result of close collaboration between a number of interested parties whose sole aim is to remove obsolete dams from the river. These include Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, The New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen, Princeton Hydro, the Town of Hackettstown, Warren County, Morris County and Gruendyke owners Rodger and Eileen Cornell.

    Working through these first two dam removal projects we learned a very valuable lesson that is being applied to other completed and pending removals. We learned the importance of working with a large, cooperative partnership to spread the burden of community outreach, funding, riparian restoration, monitoring and the many tasks that have to be undertaken before and after the dam is removed.

    In all of the removals to date the river has immediately responded to the work. Sufficient progress was made in the river’s recovery that NJDEP has responded with a new emphasis on dam removal rather than repair as the preferred procedure going forward. That has been a ‘watershed’ change of atitude and we are very grateful for NJDEP’s new awareness.

    We can’t wait to sink our teeth into the remaining dams on the Musconetong. Then we’ll start to work on the rest of the state. Torpedo the dams! Full speed ahead!

    • Thanks, Bill. Glad you could post some historical elements of the work in Hackettstown, NJ for posterity. The key is coalitions of collaborators/stakeholders to make these efforts work.

      It is always a pleasure to work with individuals who are dedicated to restoring rivers.

  2. Pingback: Thanks to Duke Farms for re-posting our blog at their blog site!!Dam Removals in New Jersey – How Did We Get Here? | Behind the Stone Walls

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