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How to Remove a Dam: Project Updates with American Rivers

Anglers All is proud to help support American Rivers, an organization that works to protect wild rivers, restore damaged rivers and conserve clean water for people and nature. If you’re not already familiar with American Rivers, this is an organization we’d highly recommend getting to know. Check them out at AmericanRivers.org.

We recently caught up with our friend Steve White from American Rivers to learn more about the incredible work being done on behalf of rivers across the country.

About American Rivers

According to Steve, American Rivers was founded in 1973 following the passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers act through congress. 

“Eight rivers were part of that original bill,” Steve explained. “But in the few years following, not much more was done. There was no dedicated organization to take rivers through the process to get them protected. There were a lot of big dams being proposed and rivers were under threat at that point. So a group of river conservationists met at a hotel in Colorado to discuss the issues. At that meeting, it all started.”

According to Steve, the organization’s early years focused on the designation of new Wild and Scenic Rivers. Then in the late 1990s, an opportunity arose to help restore the Kennebec River in Maine by removing the obsolete Edwards Dam. A coalition of organizations banded together and was successful in having that dam removed in 1999. That event had a major impact on the health of the Kennebec River and its fishery.

“Since then, we’ve had 1,300 dams taken out in the past twenty years,” Steve said. “And that’s ramping up to where more dams are being taken out every year than the year before. Whether it’s dam removal or wild and scenic designation, one cool thing about this work is that it’s doing permanent good. When you take out a dam, you’ve helped that river forever. And when you get permanent Wild and Scenic designation from congress, that’s going to last. These big projects take a long time. But then they last forever.”

Protecting Wild Rivers

One of American Rivers’ core areas of focus is protecting wild rivers. And that’s primarily done through Wild and Scenic River designation.

“When rivers are in good shape, we want to keep them that way,” Steve told us. “The best tool that we have is the Wild and Scenic River system. When a river is designated as Wild and Scenic, it means the river can’t be impacted with any federally permitted project; meaning you can’t build a dam, you can’t do diversions, you can’t do rerouting or things like that.”

Steve clarified that when a river runs through private land, the property owner can continue to do what they were doing before. Wild and Scenic designation does not alter those private property rights – it just means protection from those large, federally permitted projects that would damage the river. 

“It’s really a fantastic tool,” Steve explained. “When we’re able to get this designation, it means this river is going to stay protected forever. In congress right now, we’ve got about 6,000 river miles proposed for legislation to be protected. It’s a system that we’re really hoping to push these rivers through and get them protected. So that’s a big part of what we do as an organization.”

Restoring Damaged Rivers

Another big area of focus for American Rivers is to restore damaged rivers. Most of that work comes in the form of dam removal.

“Wherever you have river that’s dammed, the best thing you can do for that river is take the dam out,” Steve said. “Sometimes it’s hard to understand how harmful dams are to rivers and to the communities downstream – but it’s a big deal.”

Steve explained that when American Rivers works to remove dams, they’re focusing on obsolete dams that no longer serve their intended purpose. 

“We’re not trying to take out dams that serve a useful purpose and that are contributing to a community,” he explained. “There are about 90,000 dams in the country that are big enough that the Corps of Engineers knows about them. That means we’re not talking about small farm ponds. We’re talking about actual dammed rivers. And of those 90,000, it’s projected that roughly 90 percent of them serve no purpose.”

Most of these obsolete dams were built anywhere from 50 to 200 years ago. In these cases, American Rivers works with willing dam owners to take out those dams that are no longer useful, economical, or serving any purpose – and apparently, there are a lot of them.

Water Conservation

After Wild and Scenic protections and river restoration through dam removal, the third area where American Rivers spends its efforts is on conserving clean water. American Rivers works with communities to use water wisely – helping to stretch supplies of clean water as well as protecting rivers by keeping water in them.

“Last year in November of 2020, voters in western Colorado overwhelmingly approved Ballot Measure 7A, which provides critical funding for the Colorado River Conservation District,” Steve added. “We were proud to have been a part of leading that effort. Now there are millions of dollars available to conserve water and keep water in Colorado’s rivers.”

Photo by KQED

Ongoing Conservation Projects

Examples of two exciting projects that American Rivers has underway right now include the bipartisan infrastructure bill that’s making its way through congress; and a massive dam removal project on the Klamath River, which flows from the high desert of southern Oregon to the northern California coast. 

2021 Infrastructure Bill

“Within the bipartisan infrastructure bill that’s going through congress right now, our team was able to secure $800 million for dam removals and $800 million for dam safety,” Steve told us. “We were able to get that into the bill, which passed the Senate in August. We are hopeful that this bipartisan legislation will soon pass the house. Then we will have a tremendous amount of money that we can use and leverage to remove a lot more dams.”

The infrastructure bill has yet to be taken up by the House. It is now scheduled for a vote on October 31, but has already been delayed once. Now would be a great time to contact your elected House representatives and tell them that this bipartisan bill is too important to delay any longer.

Klamath River Restoration

“Additionally, we have a big dam removal project that we’re working on right now, which is on the Klamath River” Steve said. “At one time, the Klamath was one of the largest salmon runs on the west coast. But four dams have blocked the spawning grounds in the headwaters.

“We’ve been working for about 20 years to get those dams out,” Steve continued. “It has been a long road. But we’ve been working alongside local tribes in the area who have been leading the way. The removal is going to get started in 2023. We’ve got the legal and the political issues behind us. And now we’re marching toward that 2023 removal date.”

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this project. It would be the largest dam removal project in history, recovering about 400 miles of salmon spawning habitat. This will certainly be a historic moment for salmon recovery on the west coast.

Why Rivers?

“When I talk to people about our work, I like to start with why it matters, why our rivers are worth saving,” Steve told us. “There are head reasons and heart reasons. The head reasons are just logical and make sense. The heart reasons are the intangible things that go beyond that.

“From the purely logical perspective, if you look across the country, two thirds of the country gets their drinking water from rivers or reservoirs that are filled by rivers,” Steve continued. “So it’s critical that we have a good, clean water supply and rivers are central to that. From a wildlife perspective, 80 percent of our wildlife spend half their lives in a river corridor. Rivers are a critical resource for both us and for wildlife.”

Steve went on to explain that rivers also provide something intangible. Those heart reasons may be more difficult to quantify. But as anglers, we certainly understand them.

“When I step into a river, I’m in a different place,” Steve said. “The sound of the water, the push of the current, to be a part of that ecosystem, to work the fly and watch the fish eat, to release it back into the water – there’s a lot of peace and joy and really a sense of what’s right that comes from that experience. When I think about why we protect rivers, there’s definitely the resource part of it. But rivers are also treasures worth protecting.”

To learn more about the work being done by American Rivers and to get involved, please visit AmericanRivers.org. Sign up to stay informed on important issues and conservation projects. And you can donate to support the rivers you love.