Are We in a New Era for Dam Removal Projects in the U.S.?

4 Min. Read
Are We in a New Era for Dam Removal Projects in the U.S.?

Almost 20 years ago, more than 1,000 people gathered on the banks of the Kennebec River in Maine to witness history. For the first time, the federal government had ordered the removal of a hydroelectric dam because its costs outweighed its benefits. Within a year, the Kennebec, running free for the first time in more than 160 years, rebounded: Fish, including Atlantic sturgeon, alewives, and shad, reclaimed access to 18 more miles of habitat, bringing with them seals, otters, bears, bald eagles, and osprey. The people of Augusta, many of whom were skeptical of the idea of dam removal at the time, have rebounded too — rewriting the story of how their community connects with their river.

The removal of Edwards Dam on the Kennebec was a pivotal moment in the history of the environmental movement in the United States and served as a tipping point. Over the last 20 years, more than 1,100 dams have come down across the United States. Communities across the country have come together to accomplish change, including the two largest river restorations so far: the dramatic and explosive removal of Condit Dam on the White Salmon River and the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, which is the largest dam removal project in the world to date.

Amy Kober, national communications director for American Rivers, has been at all three of these historic events.

“Every time I see a dam come down, I feel both humbled and inspired at the same time. These are stories about rivers, but even more so they are stories about people,” she said. “Years and years of work go into making these river restoration successes possible. It’s about people taking their rivers back, about communities reconnecting and reimagining their futures. And when you see that first gush of water break through the dam, the river flowing freely for the first time in so many years, it’s an amazing feeling.”

Today, we’re deconstructing dams and freeing rivers faster than we’re building them. And the movement shows no sign of slowing down. According to American Rivers, 2017 and 2018 were record years for dam removals with 89 and 82 projects completed respectively, and final logistics being put into place for the next largest river restoration in the world: removing four dams on the Klamath River in 2021.

More than 40 stakeholders, including members of tribes, farming and commercial fishing communities, and conservationists, came together to hammer out the agreements to remove the Klamath’s dams, which will restore access to more than 300 miles of historic habitat, improve water quality and overall river health. This endeavor is proof of what can happen when historically polarized communities break down the boundaries between them to find a common purpose.

Are We in a New Era for Dam Removal Projects in the U.S.? | Graphic: American Rivers

The United States has more than 90,000 dams, and while not all dams are created equal and many still serve vital functions, where outdated dams have been removed and rivers restored, the results are unparalleled. Dam removal is no longer just an environmental movement, but an economic engine that is revitalizing communities, jobs, and recreation across the country.  

I was there for the Condit Dam removal. After decades of court battles and grassroots action by river advocates, 700 pounds of dynamite blew Washington State’s Condit Dam to smithereens. With that dramatic eruption, the White Salmon River broke free — reclaiming its wild course for the first time in 100 years. More importantly, it marked a swell in momentum for restoring our nation’s broken rivers. And with that first pop of dynamite, the crowd exploded alongside it.

Are We in a New Era for Dam Removal Projects in the U.S.?

To this day, that feeling sticks with me. Hundreds of people broke into spontaneous whoops, tears of joy, and bear hugs. I have never seen the conservation community celebrate in that way — or that hard. And when I think back to it, I wonder: What if we celebrated like this every day? What if we could capture this energy — the party-down feeling of special moments — and release it when we needed it most?

In essence, movements — environmental and otherwise — are celebrations of the possibility of change. Many crucial touchstones have happened as people gathered, spontaneously or by design, and took things to the next level — even, and especially when, those things are hard. Dam removal is just one example of how with every success, momentum builds to reconnect our communities and our country. So just like a river, let’s keep moving.

Photos: Condit Dam explosion timelapse (top & video) – Andy Maser, Infograpic – American Rivers; Condit Dam removal celebration – Emily Nuchols

Emily Nuchols

Emily Nuchols is a writer and the founder of Under Solen, a communications consulting firm with a cause. A fierce advocate, Emily firmly believes in celebrating every win—large and small—and that it is entirely possible to change the world one party at a time. She’s been a friend and partner of OARS since 2015.

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