Long before the Standing Rock Sioux reminded us that “Water is Life!”, pre-colonial Americans deeply understood this simple truth in a way none of us can now imagine. Rivers were their lifeblood; something they respected and ultimately put to use to make their lives easier. What resulted from their early ingenuity were thousands of dams used to operate early industrial operations, such as grist mills or sawmills. Many of these historical dams are well over 100 years old, in disrepair and no longer serve their original intended purpose. They also continue to impede the natural processes of river ecosystems. What can be done about these unneeded remnants of American history?
The Nature Conservancy (TNC), American Rivers, and other river restoration organizations have some answers. These groups are working hard to “free the rivers” by supporting dam removal projects across the country. Working in partnership with individuals, communities and government agencies, they have made great strides in restoring river habitats, improving fish breeding grounds, all while supporting the cultural and historical significance of this early American phenomenon.
This is no easy task, to be sure. Especially when you consider the magnitude of the impacts imposed on rivers by dams. The Penobscot River in Maine is a great example of how rivers can be restored. The Penobscot is New England’s second largest river with a length of 109 miles and which drains an area of 8,570 miles. Until recently, this river system had 119 dams which, the TNC noted, restricted fish migrating from the ocean to about 30 miles of navigable river.
TNC worked with several other groups to negotiate the removal of two hydropower dams and to build a fish bypass on a third dam. The results have been impressive. TNC reported in the same article, that “past counts of just a few thousand river herring have blossomed to more than 1.8 million in 2016. Researchers also documented three short-nosed sturgeon swimming farther upriver than they’ve been seen in 200 years.”
The largest dam removal project in U.S. history began in 2011 on the Elwha River in Washington. Two dams, the Elwha Dam and the Glines Canyon Dam, were removed and the river’s comeback has been vigorously studied and supported since then.
(Watch a video of the Elwha Dam destruction here.)
River recovery studies on the Elwha River have come back overwhelmingly positive. High Country News reported that in 2016, “biologists spotted chinook, steelhead, coho, bull trout and sockeye spawning upstream of the Glines Canyon Dam site for the first time in nearly a century. Pacific lamprey have returned unaided.”
However, it’s not just fish that benefit from dam removal. Entire ecosystems are being stimulated and returning to a more natural state. Sediments once held back behind the dams, are now forming beaches and helping to reshape the rivers paths. Animals, such as otter and smaller rodents, are returning to areas along the river.
Even plants have made an impressive recovery. High Country News reported “Studies conducted prior to dam removal found that there were 90 percent fewer seeds in the water below Glines Canyon Dam than above, and 84 percent fewer species represented. After the dam came down, the numbers equalized all along the channel.”
Even more encouraging is that dam removal projects seem to be on an upswing. American Rivers notes that between 1912 through 2016, 1384 dams have been removed nationwide. In 2016 alone, 72 dams were removed to help restore rivers. Overall, the United States has roughly 90,000 dams.
(American Rivers website features a map of U.S. dam removal projects here.)
A quick website review of dam removal projects in the U.S. reveals, that in addition to national groups like The Nature Conservancy and American Rivers, there are a large number of local groups emerging across the country to advocate dam removal. Groups, such as, “Free VT Rivers”, “Connecticut River Conservancy”, “Idaho Rivers United”, “River Alliance of Wisconsin”, are just a few of the many groups working to help restore river ecosystems.
It’s obvious that dam construction has played a vital role in America’s economic development and will continue to do so for a long time. However, it is encouraging to know that more and more people are supporting the dismantling of historical dams that no longer support their original intention, so-called “deadbeat dams,” as well as advocating the removal of dams that have severely impacted river ecosystems.
There are many ways to help restore rivers. What will yours be?