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American Rivers isn’t against all dams. But the advocacy group says aging dams that no longer serve a purpose are harming the health of rivers and putting people and communities in danger.

The organization’s latest report, “Free Rivers: The State of Dam Removal in the United States,” makes a case for removing out-of-date dams more quickly. It also highlights places in the U.S. where removing dams has restored waterways, and places where dam removals could make a difference in the future.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Jessie Thomas-Blate director of river restoration at American Rivers, about the report.

LISTEN to the interview

Kara Holsopple: The report points out that 57 dams were removed in 22 states in 2021, seven in Pennsylvania. What is the scope of the problem, according to American Rivers? 

Jessie Thomas-Blate: Many of the dams across the country, a majority of them likely, are getting to the point where they are exceedding the life span for which they were designed. 

One of the misconceptions that people often are not aware of is that dams don’t all provide hydropower. In fact, a very small percentage of them actually provide hydropower. Most of them do not provide flood control. 

Many of them were built over 50 to 100 or more years ago, for mills, for example, that are no longer there. We have hundreds of thousands of dams across the country. Many of them are in this situation where people need to decide, “What do we do with their structure at this point?’ Do we fix it? Do we rebuild it or do we take it down?”

“Many of [dams] were built over 50 to 100 or more years ago, for mills…that are no longer there. We have hundreds of thousands of dams across the country.”

So American Rivers work with communities, independent owners and so forth to make sure that they can deal with these prodjets without being stuck in the “what do I do with them?” We give them assistance by helping manage the project for them and raise money so that the burden of paying for removal of structures isn’t always completely on the owner of the dam. These projects can be fairly expensive.

Holsopple: What impact do these older dams have on water quality?

Thomas-Blate: It depends on the river system, how the river flows and what type of dam it is, but dams can cause changes in dissolved oxygen upstream. They can cause warming in an impoundment upstream. 

Sometimes, if it’s creating a big reservoir, they can increase the release of methane, which is a problem for climate change. So they can have some impact on water quality, for sure, but that isn’t typically the greatest impact that they have. 

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Holsopple: So what are some of the other benefits of dam removal? 

Thomas-Blate: Dam removal allows rivers to get back to their natural state and allows fish to move naturally, who need to migrate to get to places where they need to go to spawn and allows them access to habitat that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. 

It allows the natural movement of sediment and nutrients through river systems, which is important going both upstream and downstream to make sure that things are able to move around, and that creates a healthy ecosystem. So those are some of the biggest environmental impacts.

Holsopple: And there’s a safety issue too, right? 

Thomas-Blate: Absolutely. A lot of times the motivation for dam removal is less on the environmental side and more on the liability side and the public safety side. 

“Dam removal allows rivers to get back to their natural state and allows fish to move naturally.”

Dam owners, if they have a dam, especially if it’s not serving a useful purpose anymore, they’re responsible for maintaining it and they hold the liability for that structure. If someone goes out and gets hurt playing around on it, then they’re liable because they own it. A lot of times that provides motivation for folks to consider, “Is it really worth keeping this structure in place?”

Dams are a particular hazard if they’re smaller and people recreate on the river, if people are paddling or fishing or swimming near the dam. People can get sucked in underneath the current of the dam, that can be a real hazard and potentially life threatening for folks who are recreating around the dam.

Holsopple: The report identifies dams to watch in 2022 and beyond, including projects that we’ve reported on on the Mahoning River in northeastern Ohio and part of Pennsylvania. Why did they make the list? 

Thomas-Blate: They have a great project that they’re working on out there where they’re looking at removing nine dams. It’s a big project. They’ve acknowledged that these dams are having an impact. They aren’t needed anymore, and so there’s an opportunity there to really revitalize an entire river system. It’s rare, I would say, for a project to start out planning to remove nine dams in a system, you might get one or two or three, maybe, but nine is very remarkable. 

Most communities don’t have that landscape vision for restoring their rivers. The folks up in the Mahoning have really taken a look at the river system on a broader scale and said, “How do we revitalize this, you know, all the way through and not just in one very isolated area?” That’s a unique thing. Thinking on that broader scale is very hard for communities to do. 

Holsopple: How much money from the federal infrastructure law that was passed last year will go toward dam removals and maintenance. And is it enough? 

Thomas-Blate: That’s a good question. The infrastructure bill contains $4.5 bilion dollars for watershed restoration, which includes $2.4 billion to support removal, rehabilitation and retrofit of dams — $800 million of that is going toward dam removal, and this is across the country, not just in Pennsylvania. So it’s a significant investment. 

“It’s not just about plucking this dam out of the river. It’s making sure that we’re actually restoring…the health of the system and to also address concerns of the community.”

I would say it’s a bigger investment in one fell swoop than we’ve had up to this point, which is fantastic. It’s not going to be enough to address all of the dams. Just within the national inventory of dams, which is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there are about 90,000 dams, and that is likely a fraction of the dams that are out there. They don’t look at small dams. So there’s another probably few hundred thousand dams out there on top of that. 

This will be a good start to addressing the biggest problem structures, those most concerning high-hazard dams that are likely to be a threat to life or property, and the places, hopefully, that have the most ecological benefit. But in order to really address this problem, we’re going to need to continue to invest in these types of projects down the road.

Holsopple: What else would you like to see happen? 

Thomas-Blate: There is another opportunity through the 21st Century Dams Act to provide more funding and support for removal that is potentially going to be packaged with the Water Resources Development Act, which is something that Congress is working on right now. So we’re hoping that that turns into additional funding for these types of projects. 

There’s really a need on the federal level for increased coordination between federal agencies on this issue and the provisions in that bill start to address some of that and require the federal agencies to coordinate with each other a little better. 

One of the other issues is that there’s been a big focus on shovel-ready projects that are ready to go immediately to construction, but a lot of projects haven’t even started yet. We need to make sure that we’re also investing in those two building-type projects, going out and building relationships with communities, getting them to understand why this is important to do and then getting into the design of projects and working with partners to get all the stakeholders together to make sure that they’re the best projects that they can be. 

It’s not just about plucking this dam out of the river. It’s making sure that we’re actually restoring this system and doing the best that we can to restore the health of the system, and to also address concerns of the community alongside that. 

Holsopple: What I got from this report is that there have been some successes, but that we need to hurry up and address things more quickly. Is that fair? 

Thomas-Blate: That’s definitely fair. We’ve had some great projects happen. We’ve had a lot of progress up to this point, but it’s not really been fast enough to address the problem. 

The scope of the number of dams is just huge. Even when we think about starting to remove instead of, say, 100 dams a year or a few hundred dams a year, that’s still a small portion of the dams that are out there and impacting rivers. If you start to run the numbers and do the math, you realize, like, we really need to start investing in just as we invest in other infrastructure, repairing that and dealing with that, we need to do that with dams as well. 

Jessie Thomas-Blate is the director of river restoration at American Rivers.