The Damn Dams are Coming Down!!

Annette McGee Rasch

This year we will highlight some Good News stories you may not have read elsewhere, beginning with this: Dams that have long blocked free-flowing rivers – destroying countless wildlife populations – are finally coming down! Cities and towns large and small are taking a fresh look at dams that haven’t been utilized for decades, identifying and prioritizing dam removal projects.

Nature’s resilience is truly inspiring to behold. From coast to coast, people are surprised by how quickly ecosystems are rebounding. Dam removal revives multitudes of imperiled species, which in turn brings economic and social revitalization to local communities.

While dam-building goes back at least 5,000 years, most were erected in the early 1900’s as humanity raced to embrace industrialization. These concrete monstrosities were mostly designed for irrigation, hydropower and recreation. Today, less than 2% of U.S. rivers remain free-flowing!

Incredibly, there are 90,000 dams higher than head-height and over 2 million smaller dams in America that block fish from completing their migrations. Thankfully we’re moving in the right direction: According to American Rivers over 2,000 dams have now been removed in the U.S. and most of these in the past two decades, many of which were major fish-killers.

When dams are removed aquifers are recharged and wetlands are restored. Side channels and marshes return, which dramatically improves water quality for human drinking water supplies, fish and wildlife habitat, and native plant communities. These reestablished wetlands and floodplains behave like giant sponges – protecting both human and wildlife communities from massive floods that now plague many regions due to climate change. 

Kennebec River restoration fires up national dam removal movement!

The movement got its first shot in the arm when the federal government ordered the removal of Edward’s Dam on Maine’s Kennebec River 25 years ago. Once the most productive river in Maine, Atlantic Salmon runs had numbered in the hundreds of thousands and river herring and shad runs were in the many millions! Because of the dam, fish numbers – across species – had plummeted to dangerously low numbers.

This landmark decision was the first time the benefits of a free-flowing river were deemed greater than the benefits of a dam. The Natural Resources Council of Maine and coalition partners worked together to overcome many political and legal hurdles, build public support, and promote the acceptance of good science to bring about this major victory.

Now,  fish recovery advocates are looking to remove four more obsolete dams on the Kennebec – and the outlook is hopeful, again, as more and more people connect the dots between strategic fish recovery projects and economic revival for their local communities.  

Also in Maine, after 200 years of overfishing, logging, pollution and dam construction took a heavy toll on Atlantic salmon populations in the Penobsot River, in one of the one of the largest watershed restoration projects in America, the Penobscot River Restoration Project finally tackled the problem. Two dams were removed, a nature-based bypass was created, 130 culverts were removed and replaced, dramatically restoring more than 2,000 river miles. 

What’s the result?  The “King of Fish” is making a comeback! Historically, Atlantic salmon numbers in the Penobscot and its tributaries exceeded 100,000 fish; and while just over 1,000 individuals are counted these days, the numbers are steadily climbing. They remain on the Endangered Species List.

Maine is the only place left in the nation where wild Atlantic salmon can be found – and 95% of them now spawn in Penobscot.

Dam removals are critical to saving entire eco-systems in the drought-prone West

In the thirsty West, the largest dam removal project in the world is underway on Oregon’s  Klamath River. One dam is already gone and the Klamath River Renewal Corporation has begun tearing down three more giant dams by next October – putting an end to the huge reservoirs of warm stagnant water held behind these dams that create toxic algae blooms that kill fish and harm other wildlife.

Watch this dramatic video shot by Swiftwater Films of the COPCO 1 Drawdown Dam Blast on the Klamath River.

For the first time in nearly 100 years, the Klamath will experience consistent river flows. As a free-flowing river with over 400 miles of spawning habitat, recovery becomes possible for Chinook salmon populations.  More than 70,000 adult salmon died in the nation’s largest fish kill in 2002 – the result of water diversions to  farmers and ranchers during a drought. Farms and ranches in the high desert never did make sense!

It took decades of advocacy from the Yurok, Karuk, Hoopa, Shasta and Klamath tribes – who’ve lived along the shores of the Klamath for millennia – to gain the approvals needed to remove the dams that destroyed their villages. Environmentalists and community organizers worked with the tribes to help promote habitat restoration projects to benefit the river, surrounding forest ecosystems and communities.

Challenges remain, like disease issues (parasites) which weaken and kill many juvenile salmon before they make it to the ocean. And while tribal fish managers say there’s no guarantee that salmon will thrive in the drought-stricken Klamath Basin after dam removal, they’re hopeful. Climate change brings warmer waters – and that’s a huge problem – but with higher water flows and creation of inviting habitat, the salmon will finally have a fighting chance. 

Farther north, after decades of activism and law suits – including the longest-lasting Sierra Club litigation in history – another sweeping dam removal project, the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative (CBRI), designed to restore salmon and steelhead habitat in the Columbia and Snake Rivers, was recently announced. This project will help stabilize salmon populations for a huge chunk of the Pacific Northwest; and it took another powerful coalition of Tribes and environmental groups to make it happen.

The Sierra Club asks the public to help keep the pressure on the Biden Administration to make sure this project goes through in the face of opposition forces.

Send the White House a message that we support Tribal leadership and salmon restoration that includes removal of four dams on the lower Snake River.

Like many aging dams, the Snake River dams only provide a small amount of electricity – yet the damage to salmon populations is incalculable. Orca Whales rely on salmon, as do  porpoises, sea lions, bears, eagles and many more. Tribal fishermen, commercial and sport anglers rely on salmon as well. Whole communities (human and animal) hang in the balance.   

While large dam removal projects get lots of attention, the tens of thousands of smaller dams and barriers escape scrutiny. Push-up dams and old culverts on private properties, for example, wreak havoc on fish and wildlife populations. More grassroots action and political support is needed to identify these barriers, educate the public and develop projects to rehabilitate more of the nation’s shared waterways.

Safety issues also factor into dam removal projects. With bigger, more dangerous storms, older dams are often at risk for failure. Lives, homes and properties are routinely threatened. In 2005 a flood forced the whole town of Taunton, Massachusetts to evacuate – and while the dam held, the anxiety prompted the community to get rid of the Whittenton Dam on the Mill river.

Fire safety is another issue related to dam removals. In Whitefield, Maine, firefighters said critical water releases below an obsolete dam on the Sheepscot River could not be guaranteed – so the town got on board with dam removal and ecological restoration was the added benefit!

As the damn dams come out in each of these places, hope grows as ecosystems recover – a wonderful balm to the hearts and minds of those of us who cope with the pain of humanity’s impact on the natural world.

Annette McGee Rasch manages our Green Dream Jobs service and also works as a freelance writer. She advocates for and rehabilitates wildlife.

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