Dam removal

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Dam removal

Dam removal is the process of removing dated, dangerous, or ecologically damaging dams from river systems. There are thousands of out-dated dams in the United States that were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as many more recent ones that have caused such great ecological damage, that they are proposed for removal.

Catastrophic dam failures such the 1977 Kelly Barnes Dam, killing 39 students, faculty and staff of the college, the 1976 Teton Dam failure in Idaho, the 1928 St. Francis Dam failure in California, and the 1889 Johnstown Flood remind people of the dangers dams can present. The largest catastrophic failure of a dam was the 1975 Banqiao Dam disaster that killed 26,000 people immediately, resulted in 145,000 dying of disease later, and displacing 11,000,000 residents.

In 2014 the film DamNation was released illustrating and advocating the strategy of dam removal.

Purposes and effects of dams[edit]

Grand Coulee Dam, Columbia River, Washington, United States

Many of the dams in the eastern United States were built for water diversion, agriculture, factory watermills, and other purposes that are no longer useful. Because of the age of these dams, over time the risk for catastrophic failure increases. In addition, many of these dams block anadromous fish runs, such as Atlantic salmon and American shad, and prevent important sediments from reaching estuaries.

Many dams in the western United States were built for agricultural water diversion in the arid country, with hydroelectric power generation being a very significant side benefit. Among the largest of these water diversion projects is the Columbia Basin Project, which diverts water at the Grand Coulee Dam. The Bureau of Reclamation manages many of these water diversion projects.

Some dams in the Pacific Northwest and California block passage for anadromous fish species such as Pacific Salmon and steelhead. Fish ladders and other passage facilities have been largely ineffective in mitigating the negative effects on salmon populations. Bonneville Power Administration manages electricity on 11 dams on the Columbia River and 4 on the Snake River, which were built by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Clear water below Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona, United States

In the Desert Southwest, dams can change the nature of the river ecosystem. In the particular case of the Glen Canyon Dam, the originally warm, sediment-filled, muddy water, instead runs cold and clear through the Grand Canyon, which has significant impacts on the downstream ecosystems. Three native fish species have become extinct in the Grand Canyon and others are endangered since the dam was completed, including humpback chub and razorback sucker.

Some dam projects, such as those on the Salt River Project in Arizona, eliminate the flow of the river downstream, by diverting the flow into the Arizona Canal system for use in agriculture and urban usage, such that only a dry channel or arroyo heads out across the desert.

So much water is taken out of the Colorado River for agriculture, urban use, and evaporation behind the dams, that the river no longer flows into the Gulf of California.

While the need for clean, alternative energy sources are important, with so many considerations involved, sometimes it makes sense to evaluate whether the benefits of dams outweigh the costs of safety concerns, ecosystem functions, and management expenses.

Dam removal projects in the United States[edit]

Condit Dam, Washington, United States
  • 1973 - Lewiston Dam, South Fork Clearwater River, Idaho – The 39 ft (12 m) dam was built in 1927 as a hydroelectric facility, but lacked fish ladders. Upon completion of the Lower Granite Dam and its reservoir, the lack of gradient on the river made it obsolete. Its removal improved salmon runs on the river.
  • 2004 - Embrey Dam, Rappahannock River, Virginia - The 22-foot-tall, 770-foot-long, 1910 hydroelectric Embrey Dam was blown up with 600 lbs of explosives by the U.S. Army Dive team out of Ft. Eustis, VA on February 23, 2004.[1] The aim of removal was to re-open miles of spawning grounds to aid populations of American Shad, herring, catadromous American eel, and other species.[2] The historical character of the Ambursen-type reinforced concrete structure required a parallel documentation and (partial) preservation project by industrial archeologists.[3] In 2008 longtime U.S. Senator from Virginia John Warner described the removal of Embrey Dam as the "proudest achievement in his legislative career."[4]
  • 2008 - Milltown Dam, Missoula, Montana - Dam held startling levels of toxic sediments from 100 years of mining and logging. Removal improved water quality, trout habitat, and the general ecological condition of the watershed.
  • 2011 - Condit Dam, White Salmon River, Washington – The 123 ft (37 m) dam blocked access for Pacific Salmon and steelhead runs on 33 miles (53 km) of river. PacifiCorp proposed to remove the dam, rather than paying for fish passage upgrades. Removal was proposed in 2006, but actions from Skamania and Klickitat counties held up the process. In fall 2008, salmon were trucked up above to dam to allow them to spawn higher up the river. In October 2011, PacifiCorp contractors used explosives to blow a 15-foot (4.6 m) hole in the dam to drain its reservoir and allow young salmon to enter the Columbia River and head to sea.
  • 2012 - Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams, Elwha River, Washington – The largest dam removal project in history is the Elwha Ecosystem Restoration project on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. Starting in 2012, and finishing in 2014, the 108 ft (33 m) Elwha Dam and the 210 ft (64 m) Glines Canyon Dam were removed to restore stocks of Pacific Salmon and trout species to the Elwha River watershed. The removal of these blockades allows migratory salmon to travel past the dam sites and upriver, an event that has not occurred since the dams' creation in 1913. After spawning there, the salmon die and their carcasses decompose, releasing marine nutrients laid down in their bodies as they fed in the open ocean. This reintroduction provides a valuable research opportunity for interested parties.[5] Since the dam removal, reservoir beds that looked like moonscapes have returned to vibrant rich habitat. Within a year of the Elwha Dam removal, an increase in salmon-derived nutrients was documented in the American dipper [6]

Dams being considered for removal[edit]

Lower Snake River Dams[edit]

Lower Granite Dam, Washington, USA

The lower four Snake River dams including the 100 ft (30 m) Lower Granite Dam, 98 ft (30 m) Little Goose Dam, 100 ft (30 m) Lower Monumental Dam, and 100 ft (30 m) Ice Harbor Dam. These dams, built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, serve as hydroelectric power sources as well as ensuring agricultural barge traffic navigation to Lewiston, Idaho.

The lower four dams on the Snake River have collected large amounts of sediment. In fact, 3 million cubic yards of sediments are deposited each year.[7] To combat this trend, cities like Lewiston, Idaho and many others along the Snake River have built a system of levees maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. The levees in Lewiston were designed to leave five feet between water levels and the top of the levees. Today, there is only up to two feet remaining. As water levels continue to rise, either some of the dams must be removed or dredged, or the levees will continue to grow. The Corps admits that the amount of sediment in the riverbed is too great for dredging to be effective, and Lewiston community leaders are worried that higher levees will further cut the town off from its rivers.[8]

Rindge Dam[edit]

The 100 ft (30 m) Rindge Dam on Malibu Creek in the Santa Monica Mountains of California was built in 1924 and has been allowed to fill with sediment, making it obsolete. Malibu Creek once supported the southernmost steelhead population in the world. But today, steelhead no longer occupy the creek.

Klamath River Dams[edit]

Demonstrators calling for removal of dams on the Klamath River in Oregon and California, USA

Four dams on the Klamath River including the John C. Boyle, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2, and Iron Gate dams. These dams are operated by PacifiCorp and are up for relicensing. In addition to blocking salmon runs, the reservoirs that form behind the dams built up extremely high levels of toxic algal blooms.

On September 29, 2009, a tentative agreement was reached to remove the four dams; if the plan proceeds they will be dismantled starting in 2020.[9] As of February 2016, the states of Oregon and California, the dam owners, federal regulators and other parties reached an agreement to remove all four Klamath basin dams by the year 2020, pending approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.[10]

Glen Canyon Dam[edit]

Glen Canyon Dam

The 710 ft (220 m) Glen Canyon Dam has been proposed for removal because of the negative effects it has on the water quality and riparian habitat of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park. In addition, the reservoir impounded behind it, Lake Powell has filled all of the canyons for up to 160 miles (260 km) above the dam. This lake, while providing recreational opportunities, has eliminated more than 160 miles (260 km) of habitat for endangered Colorado River fish species. The reservoir also loses more than 6 percent of the total annual flow of the Colorado River to evaporation and seepage.[11] Advocates of dam removal also cite these losses of stored water as reason to decommission the dam. If it were to be removed, it would dwarf any dam removal project in history.

O'Shaughnessy (Hetch Hetchy) Dam[edit]

O'Shaughnessy Dam in California, United States was completed in 1923 and represented the first great environmental controversy in the US as it was constructed in a national park.[12] The debate over the dam and reservoir continues today. Preservationist groups such as the Sierra Club lobby for the restoration of the valley, while others argue that leaving the dam in place would be the better economic and environmental decision.[13]

Kinnickinnic River Dams - The Upper "Junction Falls" Dam & The Lower "Powell Falls" Dam[edit]

The Upper "Junction Falls" Dam on the Kinnickinnic River in River Falls, Wisconsin as it appears today. The Historic Junction Falls are obscured by its presence, the lowest ledge of the Junction Falls now sits as the dry ledge below the base of the dam.
The historic Junction Falls of the Kinnickinnic River in River Falls, Wisconsin prior to the construction of any dam in the Kinnickinnic River. This photograph was originally taken by John Carbutt between 1864 - 1865 and published as a stereoview in a set of scenery pictures of "The Upper Mississippi, Minnesota and the Vicinity".[14]

The two remaining dams on the Kinnickinnic River in River Falls, Wisconsin are being considered for removal in order to completely restore the Kinnickinnic River to its natural state.[15] The Kinnickinnic River, called the Kinni for short, is a 22-mile-long (35 km)[16] river in northwestern Wisconsin in the United States. The Kinni is a cold water fishery supporting a population of native Brook Trout and naturally reproducing Brown Trout. The Kinnickinnic River is officially designated as a Class I trout stream by the WI DNR, indicating it is a "high quality" trout water that has sufficient natural reproduction to sustain populations of wild trout, at or near carrying capacity.[17] The Kinnickinnic is also designated as an Outstanding Resource Water (ORW) by the WI DNR both above State HWY 35, and below the Powell Falls Dam, however, the stretch of the Kinni through the City of River Falls is not included in this designation where the river is impounded into two reservoirs which do not support a fishery. This ORW designation indicates the Kinni provides outstanding recreational opportunities, supports valuable fisheries and wildlife habitat, has good water quality, and is not significantly impacted by human activities.[18] This designation indicates that the State of Wisconsin has determined the Kinnickinnic River warrants additional protection from the effects of pollution. These designations are intended to meet federal Clean Water Act obligations requiring Wisconsin to adopt an “antidegradation” policy that is designed to prevent any lowering of water quality – especially in those waters having significant ecological or cultural value.[18]

Local stakeholder organizations in the FERC relicensing process include the Friends of the Kinni, the Kiap-TU-Wish Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust, and the River Alliance of Wisconsin. Government agencies also serving as stakeholder organizations include the Wisconsin DNR, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://www.americanrivers.org/our-work/restoring-rivers/dams/projects/embrey-dam.html
  2. ^ http://fredericksburg.com/News/FLS/2006/022006/02232006/170364
  3. ^ http://www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/bloededam/image/FINAL_BOOK_LAYOUT.pdf
  4. ^ Dennen, Rusty (2008-09-23). "Rapids to be named for John Warner". 
  5. ^ http://www.elwhascienceed.org/project-update/elwha-salmon-populations
  6. ^ Crane, Misti (December 28, 2015). "River ecosystems show 'incredible' initial recovery after dam removal". phys.org. Retrieved December 28, 2015. 
  7. ^ Barker, E. (2007, February 16). Corps of engineers gets earful about sediment problems. Lewiston Tribune.
  8. ^ "Why Restore Wild Salmon?" Save Our Wild Salmon. Retrieved 18 May 2011. <http://www.wildsalmon.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=94&Itemid=62>.
  9. ^ Fimrite, P. Deal to raze 4 Klamath dams. San Francisco Chronicle 30 September 2009.
  10. ^ http://www.sfgate.com/nation/article/New-plan-to-remove-Klamath-River-dams-without-6801869.php
  11. ^ "Why Glen Canyon?". Glen Canyon Institute. Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
  12. ^ "Hetch Hetchy Environmental Debates". The Center for Legislative Archives. National Archives. Retrieved 2014-04-12. 
  13. ^ Rogers, Paul (2012-09-30). "Hetch Hetchy controversy: Could Yosemite's 'second valley' be restored?". San Jose Mercury News. 
  14. ^ Palmquist, Peter (2005). Pioneer Photographers from the Mississippi to the Continental Divide: A Biographical Dictionary, 1839-1865. Stanford University Press. pp. 146–147. 
  15. ^ Pfueler, Phil (2015-01-22). "For River Falls, it’s dam right…or wrong?". River Falls Journal. 
  16. ^ U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data. The National Map, accessed October 5, 2012
  17. ^ http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/fishing/trout/streamclassification.html
  18. ^ a b http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/surfacewater/orwerw.html

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