Removing Dams Has Many Benefits, New Report Says
More than 465 Dams Already Taken Down Nationwide
12/13/1999 — —
Removing dams is often the most effective way to restore rivers, save dam owners and taxpayers money, revitalize riverside communities, and improve public safety, according to a new report released today.
The report, Dam Removal Success Stories: Restoring Rivers through Selective Removal of Dams that Don’t Make Sense, released by American Rivers, Friends of the Earth, and Trout Unlimited, documents more than 465 dams that have been removed across the country and includes 25 detailed case studies of dam removal success stories. It is the most comprehensive review to date of the history and benefits of dam removal in the United States.
“When they hear how successful these dam removals were, we hope more communities, dam owners, and natural resource managers will consider removing dams on their local rivers as one reasonable way to restore them to health and revitalize the communities along their banks,” said Margaret Bowman, director of American Rivers’ Rivers Unplugged campaign.
“As society’s needs continue to change, more and more dam owners are seeing removal as the best approach for dealing with old, unsafe or uneconomical dams,” said Sara Johnson, Trout Unlimited’s Director of Volunteer Operations and small dams expert. “As this report shows, selective removal of dams ie a cost-effective river restoration tool that can be a ‘win-win-win’ situation-for dam owners, for fish, and for the local community.”
“Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the hundreds of dams that have been removed in the United States, despite the growing national policy debate on the subject,” said Shawn Cantrell of Friends of the Earth. “This report provides valuable information on the ecological, safety, and economic benefits that accompanied past dam removal efforts.”
The dams highlighted in the report were removed because their negative impacts on rivers and riverside communities outweighed their benefits. Many of the dams blocked fish migration and degraded water quality. Many were old, abandoned, and threatened public safety. The report found that dam removal is often less expensive than repair, particularly where the benefits of the dam were marginal or non-existent.
The case studies highlight consistent collaboration and support from local communities and demonstrate a variety of financing options.
“Contrary to popular belief, dam removal is not new and radical,” added Bowman, of American Rivers. “This report shows that for decades dam removal has been an accepted approach for dam owners and communities to deal with unsafe, unwanted, or obsolete dams.”
The ecological benefits of restoring rivers (e.g. improved fish and wildlife habitat and water quality) often lead to economic benefits and improved quality of life for riverside communities, the report found. In each of the 25 case studies, new opportunities for tourism, boating, and fishing arose when a free-flowing river was restored. In many instances, removing a dam restored the community’s connection to its river, as long-forgotten natural features such as waterfalls and rapids were revealed and fish runs restored.
The 25 success stories include dam removals in the following states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. The report documents the removals of different types of dams, including hydroelectric, water supply, and irrigation. The successes that resulted include:
- RETURN OF FISH AND WILDLIFE: A record 20,000 endangered chinnook salmon returned to spawn in Butte Creek, in California’s Sacramento Valley, compared with fourteen counted in the creek in 1987, before four small dams and 12 unscreened water diversions were removed last year. The reliability and amount of water available for waterfowl and farming also increased. On Florida’s Chipola River, 61 fish species were found after the Dead Lakes Dam was removed, compared with only 34 found before.
- ECONOMIC BENEFITS: Removing the badly deteriorated Woolen Mills Dam from Wisconsin’s Milwaukee River (at a cost of $86,000) was cheaper than repairing or replacing the dam (estimated cost, $3.3 million). Further, the dam removal helped spur community economic development with the creation of the popular Riverside Park.
- ELIMINATION OF PUBLIC SAFETY HAZARDS: In 1990, the 86-year old Bluebird Dam was removed from Colorado’s Ouzel Creek to eliminate a safety hazard and eyesore in an otherwise pristine alpine wilderness area. Hikers in Rocky Mountain National Park no longer need worry that the leaking, dilapidated dam will fail and cause a disastrous flood. And paddlers on Minnesota’s Cannon River are no longer threatened by the deteriorating Welch Dam, removed in 1994.
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. Dams have a variety of negative impacts on rivers, including: blocked or slowed flows; reduced river levels; blocked or inhibited fish passage; obstructed movement of nutrients, gravel, and woody debris; altered water temperature; lower levels of dissolved oxygen; limited public access to the river; and harm to the aesthetics and natural character of a setting.
Removal is not appropriate for all, or even most, of the nation’s 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 societal 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 impacts of the dam outweigh its benefits, dam removal is a reasonable and viable option.
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