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Is Dam Removal Really an Environmental Panacea?

Oct 15, 2013

We report on dam removal fairly regularly on, and avoiding this particular subset of the industry, despite the overt negative connotations, would be an obvious oversight. Dam removal happens, and we need to talk about it.

However, I have mixed feelings when it comes to the topic. On the one hand, over my 10 years of reporting on this industry, I have become intimately familiar with the time, effort and money involved with building a dam. These things do not go in quickly, and it typically is not an easy process. On the other hand, I am aware that the very existence of a dam alters the riverine environment around it and downstream, whether you are referring to sedimentation issues, dissolved gas or fish passage.

Are all dam removals “bad?” Certainly not. Are there reasons for them? Definitely. Are these reasons justified in all cases? I’m sure the parties believe they are, or the dams would not be removed.

Despite this, I am still skeptical about the practice. It seems to spur primarily from two things. One is the desire to protect fish by restoring native habitat. The other is to forge an agreement between affected parties during the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing of a hydroelectric project.

For example, we reported that work began in July 2013 on removal of Veazie Dam on the Penobscot River in Maine. This work will restore nearly 1,000 miles of habitat for a number of sea-run fish species. This dam is 830 feet long and 30 feet high and was completed in 1913. It impounded water for an 8.4-MW powerhouse and was owned by PPL Corporation before it was acquired by the Penobscot River Restoration Trust in 2010. The dam is expected to be gone by the end of 2014.

Just a month earlier, in June, we reported on a ceremony marking the first day of the deconstruction of San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River in California. This situation is a little different in that the dam, built in 1921, was determined to be seismically unsafe and an impediment to steelhead trout and other wildlife. Owner California American Water requested permission to remove the dam in September 2009, and a US$61 million contract was awarded to Granite Construction in May 2013. This work will help restore 25 miles of steelhead spawning habitat.

By far the most fascinating story I have been following with regard to dam removal involves the four PacifiCorp-owned dams and hydroelectric projects along the Klamath River in southern Oregon and northern California that are recommended for removal. In April 2013, the U.S. Department of Interior released its final environmental impact statement, with a recommendation for the full removal of the 90-MW J.C. Boyle, 20-W Copco, 1.27-MW Copco 2 and 18-MW Iron Gate projects.

This is by no means the final say in the fate of these projects, but it does seem to point in the direction of the verdict. Removal of these dams will help Interior and other federal and state agencies carry out obligations set forth in the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement. This agreement, reached in February 2010, lays out the process for additional studies, environmental review and a decision by the Secretary of Interior regarding whether removal of these four dams will advance restoration of the salmonid fisheries of the Klamath Basin and is in the public interest.

Before a decision can be made, the Secretary must undertake a thorough scientific review of existing science, data and other information so as to be fully informed of the potential costs, benefits and liabilities associated with removing these dams.

I know what I am about to say is incredibly simplistic, but it is a bit sad to me to see four hydroelectric facilities taken out of commission. That’s more than 129 MW of electricity generating capacity that must be replaced by something. Sure, some of this can be replaced by upgrades of existing facilities, but we all know not much new hydro development work is going on in this country right now, so it’s not likely new plants will come on line that can fully replace the four being eyed for removal.

How do you feel about dam removal? Is it the right thing? Is it accomplishing the goals envisioned when the decision to remove the dam is made?

Lead image: Hydropower via Shutterstock

The information and views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of or the companies that advertise on this Web site and other publications. This blog was posted directly by the author and was not reviewed for accuracy, spelling or grammar.

Elizabeth Ingram is senior editor of Hydro Review and HRW-Hydro Review Worldwide magazines and conference committee chair for HydroVision International. She has nearly 20 years of experience in the magazine publishing industry, with more than nine of those spent in hydro.


Volume 18, Issue 4


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