Restoring Rivers through Selective Removal of Dams that Don't Make Sense
12/13/1999 -- -- Few human actions have more significant impacts on a river system than the presence of a dam. Although dams can provide important societal benefits, dams also cause negative impacts to the river, fish and wildlife, and sometimes the local community. Some dams no longer provide any benefits, while continuing to impact the river. Others have significant negative impacts that outweigh the dam's benefits. Still others simply are so old and/or unsafe that they cost too much money to maintain. In these situations, dam removal has been demonstrated to be a reasonable option to eliminate negative impacts and safety concerns.
Despite the growing national policy debate regarding proposed dam removals, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the hundreds of smaller dams that have already been removed in the United States. For those interested in the issue, little information is available on the history of taking down dams. Citizens and policy makers considering the future of a dam have a limited ability to review similar situations from the past. No comprehensive review of dam removal experiences exists, nor is there a complete compilation of lessons learned.
To help compensate for this lack of information, American Rivers, Friends of the Earth, and Trout Unlimited have prepared this report providing information on some of the dams that have been removed - and the ecological, safety, and economic benefits that accompanied these removals.
Our research documented more than 465 dams that have been removed in all regions of the United States, with specific information on past dam removals in 43 states. States with the most recorded removals include Wisconsin (73 dams), California (47 dams), Ohio (39 dams), Pennsylvania (38 dams), and Tennessee (25 dams). All types of dams have been removed, from water supply to hydroelectric, flood control to recreation. Earthfill dams, concrete arch dams, gravity dams, masonry dams, and timber crib dams have all been taken out. Removed dams have been publicly owned, privately owned, and abandoned dams.
Of the cases for which we were able to determine the height of the removed dam , the average height was approximately 21 feet. Not all removed dams have been small however; there are more than 40 dams that were 40 feet or taller that have been taken out, including four dams that were 120 feet or taller. Of the removals for which we were able to determine the length of the dam, the average length was approximately 224 feet.
The majority of dam removals identified occurred in the 1980s (92 dams) and 1990s (177 dams). The earliest removal for which we have records was completed in 1912. The year in which there were the most removals was 1998, when 29 structures were taken out. It is difficult to determine, however, if this is a reflection of better record keeping on the topic in recent years and greater public interest and awareness of the issue, or if there is in fact a significant increase in removals in recent years.
Our research identified three primary reasons for removing a dam: 1) to address environmental issues, such as restoring a river's damaged ecosystem and rebuilding depleted fish and wildlife populations; 2) to resolve public safety concerns, such as remedying structural deficiencies of an aging and deteriorating dam; and 3) to deal with economic issues, such as when on-going operation and maintenance investments, as well as required structural upgrades and operational modifications, mean that continued dam operation is no longer cost-effective. Most removal decisions involve a combination of all three of these reasons.
We also compiled 26 case studies on various dam removals across the country - 25 of which are dams that were successfully removed (listed below in alphabetical order), followed by a final case study which provides lessons learned and mistakes to avoid when removing a dam.
Baraboo River, Wisconsin - Waterworks Dam was removed, which dramatically improved a sport fishery, restored rare riffle habitat, began the revitalization of the local community's urban riverfront, eliminated a public safety hazard, and saved taxpayer money.
Bear Creek, Oregon - Jackson Street Dam was removed, which restored 1/4 mile of aquatic habitat, improved up- and downstream fish passage, assisted with urban riverfront revitalization, improved water quality, and allowed an irrigation district to upgrade its fish passage facilities.
Butte Creek, California - four dams were removed, which restored 25 miles of migratory fish habitat for threatened chinook salmon and other species, improved irrigation diversions for rice farmers, and improved waterfowl habitat.
Cannon River, Minnesota - Welch Dam was removed, which opened 12 miles for fish migration, eliminated a safety hazard, enhanced recreation opportunities, and improved safety conditions for canoeists.
Chipola River, Florida - Dead Lakes Dam was removed, which improved migratory fish habitat, increased abundance and quality of resident fish, enhanced recreational fishing opportunities, and improved water quality.
Clearwater River, Idaho - two dams were removed, which improved access for salmon and steelhead to over 450 miles of main stem and tributary habitat, and helped restore Native American Tribe's treaty rights.
Clyde River, Vermont - Newport #11 Dam was removed, which improved water quality, restored fish passage for migratory fish, improved instream flows, and improved recreation opportunities.
Colburn Creek, Idaho - Colburn Mill Pond dam was removed, which opened over three miles of migratory trout spawning and rearing habitat, improved habitat for resident fish, and involved an extremely positive collaboration between industry, government, and a conservation group.
Cold Creek, California - Lake Christopher Dam was removed, which improved water quality, restored migratory and resident fish habitat, eliminated a potential flood hazard, and restored a mountain meadow.
Conestoga River, Pennsylvania - seven dams were removed, which opened over 25 miles to migratory fish, improved habitat for resident fish species, increased recreational opportunities for a rapidly growing area, and removed attractive nuisances.
Evans Creek, Oregon - Alphonso Dam was removed, which restored 12 miles of spawning and rearing habitat for migratory fish, including threatened coho salmon, and which restored resident fish habitat.
Juniata River, Pennsylvania - Williamsburg Station Dam was removed, which opened over 20 miles to resident fish, increased recreational opportunities for a growing area, improved water quality, and removed attractive nuisances.
Kennebec River, Maine - Edwards Dam was removed, which restored 17 miles of prime spawning and rearing habitat for migratory fish, restored numerous rapids and riffles creating diverse habitat, and enhanced river recreation such as canoeing and fishing.
Kettle River, Minnesota - Sandstone Dam was removed, which opened 30 miles for fish migration, improved whitewater recreation, and revealed a six- to eight-foot waterfall and numerous rapids.
Little Miami River, Ohio - Jacoby Road Dam was removed, which restored a State & National Scenic River, increased habitat for fish and bi-valve mollusks, improved safety for recreational boaters, and provided a very low cost solution to a failing dam.
Milwaukee River, Wisconsin - Woolen Mills Dam was removed, which restored a high quality warm-water sport fishery, dramatically improved water quality, led to development of Riverside Park from 61 acres of "new" municipal park property, and saved taxpayers money.
Naugatuck River, Connecticut - three dams were removed, which helped restore migratory fish runs, improved recreational opportunities (fishing and boating), and improved water quality.
Neuse River, North Carolina - Quaker Neck Dam was removed, which opened 75 miles of main stem river and 925 miles of tributaries to six species of migratory fish and improved habitat for endangered mussels.
Ouzel Creek, Colorado - Bluebird Dam was removed, which eliminated a severe public safety risk, restored an alpine wilderness area, and returned the creek's natural flow regime, benefiting threatened greenback cutthroat trout.
Pleasant River, Maine - Columbia Falls Hydro Dam was removed, which restored four miles of spawning habitat and 13 miles of rearing habitat for declining Atlantic salmon populations, restored freshwater flow to smelt tidal spawning habitat, and saved money over the cost of repair.
Santa Fe River, New Mexico - Two Mile Dam was removed, which eliminated a severe public safety threat, provided a cost-effective solution to the dam owner, and created a wetland area and waterfowl habitat.
Souadabscook Stream, Maine - Grist Mill Dam was removed, which opened three miles of migratory fish habitat, restored historic fishing waters of Penobscot Nation Indians, improved overall health of river system, reduced likelihood of flooding to nearby properties, increased canoeing and kayaking opportunities, and eliminated damage to US Route 1 and associated costs
Walla Walla River, Oregon - Marie Dorian Dam was removed, which provided native migratory fish with access to historic spawning grounds, and allowed upstream and downstream non-migratory fish populations to mix more easily, thereby ensuring genetic diversity.
Whitestone Creek, Washington - Rat Lake Dam was removed, which eliminated a severe public safety threat, provided a least cost solution to the dam owner, restored the natural shoreline habitat, and resolved a legal liability dispute.
Willow River, Wisconsin - two dams were removed, which restored four miles of trout fishery, provided recreational improvements to the Willow River State Park, restored natural landscape features such as scenic Willow Falls, eliminated a safety threat to park visitors, and saved taxpayer money.
Hudson River, New York - Fort Edward Dam was removed, which was not a "success story," but which did highlight the need to thoroughly investigate potential hazards and blockages in a reservoir that could become exposed with dam removal, as well as the volume and toxicity of sediment upstream of dam.
There are approximately 75,000 dams over six feet tall on rivers across the United States, and at least tens of thousands of smaller dams. Removal is not appropriate for all, or even most, of these dams. Far less than one percent of all dams in the United States are even under consideration for removal. Many dams continue to serve public or private functions such as hydropower generation, irrigation, and flood control. The operation of these dams could be improved to minimize their environmental and social impacts, while still providing their intended benefits. However, some dams cause such significant damage that no amount of improved operation will alleviate the harm. For these dams, where the negative impacts of the dam outweigh its benefits, dam removal is a reasonable and viable solution.
We hope that dam owners, resource managers, and other concerned parties will find this information helpful in their own decision-making processes regarding dams - decisions that will impact our nation's rivers for generations to come. For a full copy of the Dam Removal Success Stories report, visit any of our web pages at:
For additional information about ongoing dam removal efforts, contact the staff members listed below:
Senior Director, Dam Programs
1025 Vermont Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20005
Tel: (202) 347-7550 x 3016
Fax: (202) 347-9240
Rivers Project Director
Friends of the Earth
6512 23rd Ave. NW
Seattle, WA 98117
Tel: (206) 297-9460
Fax: (206) 297-9468
Small Dam Removal Expert
1500 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA 22209
Tel: (608) 231-9950
Fax: (703) 284-9400
For More Information See:
Removing Dams Has Many Benefits, New Report Says