Bringing down the dams
“Dam it all!” That may well have been the cry of the nation’s engineers as the United States sought to industrialize, establish inland ports, settle the West and control flooding. Today, however, a murmur for selective deconstruction of dams is in the air.
“Across the country, there are hundreds of dam removal efforts,” says Margaret Bowman, director of dam programs for American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation group. “These are dams that tend to be abandoned or are not serving a lot of purpose at this point. There are often dam safety concerns, so there’s a desire to remove the dam.”
“There’s clearly a trend out there to want to remove dams that are no longer serving whatever their original intended purpose was,” says Martin McCann, director of the National Performance of Dams Program (NPDP). Operated by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif., the program is a clearinghouse for dam performance data. (NPDP was established in 1994. As part of its work, it processes dam “incident reports,” and McCann notes that, while the number of annual reported removals has increased slightly since 1997, there is not enough data to establish a statistical trend.)
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ National Inventory of Dams indicates that dams continue to be built. Simultaneously, owners of existing dams are weighing safety, economics, and the dams’ usefulness and environmental impact, and some are opting for removal.
Economic incentives The expected life of a dam is 50 years. In “1998 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Reston, Va., concluded that 25 percent of U.S. dams are more than 50 years old, and, by 2020, that figure will reach 85 percent. Citing age, abandonment and lack of funding for repairs, ASCE gave dams an overall grade of “D.”
The organization estimates that the average cost of modifying a dam to meet today’s safety standards is $500,000, while the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission estimates a cost of $1.5 million per dam. It was those types of numbers that prompted officials in West Bend, Wis., to remove Woolen Mills Dam from the Milwaukee River. The dam was built in 1918 to provide mechanical power to a mill, and, by the 1980s, it needed significant repairs. Additionally, the city faced environmental problems behind the structure.
“It impounded about 650 acre-feet of water, and the impoundment went up into the city,” says Meg Galloway, dam safety engineer for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “The water quality was poor. The water was so shallow that it really warmed up all summer, and they got huge algae blooms. The primary fish in the impoundment were carp, and there wasn’t a lot of recreational use.”
In connection with a planned bridge project, officials initially decided to reconstruct the dam. The combined cost was estimated at $3 million, however, and, according to Galloway, West Bend went into sticker shock.
At the same time, the Department of Natural Resources promoted removing Woolen Mills to help the area’s fishery recover and to improve the water quality. Additionally, heavy metals leaching from a landfill adjacent to the site prompted the Department to recommend a draw down for containment.
With the economic and environmental costs in hand, city officials opted to remove Woolen Dam in 1988. The project cost $68,000, much of which came from state priority watershed funds; fisheries money for habitats; and a stewardship fund for parks improvements.
Today, the Woolen Mills site is transformed. Some of the land in the former impoundment has been turned into soccer and baseball fields, as well as open green space. “A large area of the impoundment was planted in wetlands and prairie plants,” Galloway reports. “A trail system that [winds] over the restored river channel is now a central piece of that park system.” Additionally, the river has been repopulated and now supports a variety of species of sport fish.
Renewing an urban streambed Although economic concerns are likely to prompt dam owners to consider the possibility of removal, environmental risks can be equally compelling. “The majority of [Wisconsin’s] dam removals (there have been 53 since the late 1960s) started out with a safety concern and the owner needing to make a decision whether to invest in the repair or reconstruction of the dam or choose to remove the dam,” Galloway says. “In most cases, the decision to remove was an economic decision, but there have been some removals in the past and are currently more that are being prompted by environmental concerns.”
That was the case in southern Oregon, where Medford recently removed a dam in an effort to restore the Bear Creek streambed. The creek, which runs to the Rogue River, contained a diversion dam, built in the 1960s to aid in irrigation. However, shrinking fish populations and standing water moved local officials to make a change.
“The design of the dam was damaging the native fish, and the spawning migrations were slowly dwindling,” says Gary Wheeler, a member of the Medford Urban Renewal Agency (MURA). “Plus, in the summertime, with the diversion, the water would back up and become very stagnant. It was not a pretty sight, and it was right near one of our downtown parks.”
In 1990, MURA began looking for ways to improve water flow and landscaping along the creek. Assisted by a coalition of environmental groups, state and federal agencies, the irrigation district and neighboring cities, the group decided to remove the existing dam and install a new diversion mechanism upstream. The project area extended approximately 1 mile.
“We didn’t have a lot of opposition,” Wheeler says. “The people in the irrigation district were somewhat reluctant because they were afraid they would not get their water for the summer irrigation season.”
Medford removed the dam last summer. (Wheeler estimates that the dam was 12 feet high and 40 yards wide.) It then lowered the streambed, speeding water flow; installed the new (removable) structure; and built an interceptor pipeline for the irrigation district. Jackson County took the sediment from the collection pond and used it as liner for a new landfill. Medford spent $900,000 on removal of the old dam and construction of the new system. The budget includes another $200,000 for placement of rip rap and planting of native foliage, which is an ongoing part of the restoration. Private, local, state and federal resources funded the work. “We covered just about everybody we could for grants and/or other funds,” Wheeler says.
Four years after the deconstruction of the original dam, MURA is seeing positive effects. “The stream flow is really quite nice now, and the water’s becoming much clearer,” Wheeler notes. “We’re also seeing some return of the native fish. Coho (salmon) and others have been spotted in the stream again, and they’re able to make it upstream easily.”
The agency hopes the project will promote other revitalization efforts. “Part of the city backs up to the stream, and hopefully the beautification will encourage businesses to open their buildings to the stream and use it for a real focus point for rehab of older buildings,” Wheeler says.
Restoring fish runs When a dam is unsafe, or when it no longer provides the service for which it is intended, the push for removal often is amicable, says Bowman of American Rivers. However, when the environment clashes with economics, controversy can erupt (see the sidebar on page 28). And for that reason, proponents of dam removal – whether they are owners, environmentalists or regulatory agencies – sometimes walk a tightrope.
“Every dam and every river is different, and, when deciding if dam breaching or dam removal is appropriate, you have to take a look at many different factors,” Bowman explains. “Those include the environmental impacts of the dam; the environmental impacts of the breach; the economics of breaching; the interest in the local community for breaching; the opposition to breaching; the engineering of how it will be done; the recreational and socioeconomic impacts of the dam; and the impacts of removal.” In Augusta, Maine, planned removal of a 162-year-old dam brings all those considerations to the fore. Edwards Dam, on the Kennebec River, was built to provide power to sawmills and to impound the river for navigation. In 1910, it began producing hydroelectricity.
For many years, the privately owned dam powered the mill, which provided a significant tax base for Augusta. And, in the 1980s, as the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA) made it highly profitable to sell electricity, the city sought to boost its revenue by becoming a co-licensee.
The mill subsequently closed, diminishing Augusta’s employment base, and a 1989 fire that destroyed the facility further reduced the city’s tax revenue from the property. More recently, energy prices fell, and the PURPA advantages ended.
To make matters worse, Edwards Dam blocks the access of several native fish species – including the shortnosed sturgeon, the Atlantic sturgeon and the Atlantic salmon – to their spawning habitat. As fish populations dwindled, and as the economic benefit of operating the dam was minimized, environmentalists began pushing the city and dam owner Edwards Manufacturing for removal.
Last November, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) denied license renewal for Edwards Dam and ordered the co-licensees to remove the structure at their own expense. The removal order, a first for FERC, set off heated debate. However, to avoid a long-term lawsuit, the parties reached a settlement.
Under the agreement, the dam owner was able to transfer ownership to the state of Maine, which is now overseeing removal. According to American Rivers, the $2.7 million removal will be funded by upstream dam owners in exchange for a delay in their fish passage obligations, and by a downstream shipbuilder in exchange for a permit to expand its operation. When the project is completed, the state will transfer the property back to Augusta.
The 24-foot-high, 917-foot-wide dam will be demolished in two stages, beginning this summer. Deconstruction is scheduled for completion by Thanksgiving, and, although revegetation will take years, the project holds promise, says Stephen Brooke, project coordinator for the Kennebec Coalition. (The organization unites local, regional and national conservationists, and it was instrumental in pressing for the Edwards removal agreement.)
“[The project affects] literally a linear half-mile in the downtown of the capital of the state, with 14 or 15 acres of land,” Brooke says. “So the city is now going to have the opportunity to redevelop this area adjacent to the river.”
Additionally, as the fisheries recover, the city and state will enjoy healthier revenue, Brooke notes. “People are beginning to recognize that recreational angling is a big- dollar [venture],” he explains. “Revenue is generated from license sales, and from people coming to the communities, renting boats, hiring guides and staying overnight.” Fredericksburg, Va., is hoping for a similar payoff when it removes Embrey Dam from the Rappahanock River. Built in 1910 for hydropower production, the dam no longer produces power, and, in 1994, an inspection revealed that the structure had cracked excessively. A proposed plan to remove the dam (the project is still in the feasibility stage) would open the door to environmental restoration and white water recreational revenue.
“This whole section, which has white water above and below it, will become a very attractive white water destination,” predicts John Tippett, executive director of Friends of the Rappahanock, a nonprofit group based in Fredericksburg. “A canal runs alongside the river, so canoeists and kayakers will be able to paddle a section of white water, hop into the canal, and paddle back up to do it again. That’s tremendous because you don’t have to have a vehicle.”
In addition to being unsafe, Embrey Dam blocks the migration of fish such as the American shad and the striped bass. A 1997 report commissioned by the state legislature concluded that the cost of installing fish passages ($10.2 million) exceeds that of removing the dam ($7.5 million). By choosing the latter option, the city hopes to eliminate costs of repair and long-term maintenance; eliminate safety risks and liability; restore the river and its fish; and boost tourism.
A new psychology Fragmented rivers, degraded water quality and interrupted fish migration are among the most commonly cited drawbacks to dams. But the fact remains that most dams provide economic and quality-of-life benefits that few people are eager to relinquish.
“In most communities faced with this decision, the first thought is ‘How can we save the dam,'” says Galloway of Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. “Most people have never known any condition other than the dam condition, and so that is the status quo. The concept of removal brings up a lot of frightening pictures.
“They’ve all seen the dam, and they’ve seen the impoundment at some point – probably when it’s been drawn down – and there have been vast mud flats, devoid of any vegetation. And they don’t smell very good when they’re first exposed,” she explains. “Also, people are concerned that, once you take the dam away, there will be virtually no water left in the river. [They believe] that the dam creates the water in the river and that, if the dam is gone, the river will go, too.”
Bowman has heard similar fears. “The psychology of dam removal is new, and many of the dams fueled our leap into the industrial age,” she notes. “So, many people view all dams as inherently good and beneficial, and they view dam removal as a reversal of progress.”
Common concerns include potential disruption, unsightliness, and loss of recreation and wildlife. “The river will be restored quite rapidly,” Bowman says. “Yes, there will be some open mud flats for a while, but they revegetate quickly, and you get a restored river quite rapidly. And, if there were recreational opportunities on the reservoir, you will replace those with opportunities on the restored river.”
There are more than 87,500 dams in the United States, according to the National Performance of Dams Program (NPDP) at Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif. Nearly 44,000 of them are privately owned; another 20,000 are owned by local governments or public utilities; and the remainder is split almost equally between the states and the federal government. They range from stream walls spanning a few feet to the largest concrete structure in the United States: Grand Coulee Dam in central Washington.
The earliest U.S. dams were built in the 17th century in conjunction with mills. In his book “Dams and Public Safety,” Robert Jansen writes, “A dam was erected in 1623 to operate the first sawmill in America, on the Piscataqua River at South Windham, Maine. Another provided water for the first gristmill at Portsmouth, New Hampshire.”
Later, they were built to provide irrigation, aid navigation, control flooding and produce hydroelectricity. Today, according to NPDP, slightly more than 4 percent of the nation’s dams generate hydroelectricity, and 1,124 operate for that purpose only.
Flood waters and lightning had become the bane of the Winston-Salem (N.C.)/Forsyth County Utility Commission. Every time the Yadkin River overflowed or storm clouds rolled in, flow meters were damaged. Recently, however, the commission completed a widespread meter replacement and retrofit project, ending a long and costly cycle of repair.
Winston-Salem and Forsyth County are served by two wastewater treatment plants, two water treatment plants, 50 waste-pumping stations, eight water pumping stations, storage reservoirs and elevated tanks. Hundreds of flow meters are used throughout the utility system.
Daniel Ratledge, instrumentation specialist for the city, says repeated damage made replacement unavoidable in some parts of the system. “We had transmitters that were ruined in flooding and circuit boards that were ruined from lightning hits,” he explains. The utility purchased new meters from Water Specialties, Porterville, Calif., and elevated the instruments to guard them against flooding. “The electronic transmitter that transmits the flow signal is on the top of the meter,” Ratledge notes.
“They were not tall enough to stay out of the water when it flooded, so we had them built with extensions that made them taller,” he explains. Additionally, the meters are potted in small, sealed enclosures for extra protection.
The project has proven cost-effective, Ratledge says. “We’ve saved hundreds of thousands of dollars with the retrofitting, and we’ve virtually eliminated any maintenance problems with the new meters,” he explains. “We’ve saved money in parts and repairs, and we’ve saved many hours that we used to spend on repairs and maintenance.”
The American Water Works Association, based in Denver, has introduced CCRbuilder, a web-based tool for assisting U.S. water utilities in preparing Consumer Confidence Reports. Required by the 1996 Safe Drinking Water A ct, the reports will provide utility customers with information describing the source and content of their drinking water. Every local water utility that has at least 15 connections serving year-round residents must prepare the reports, explains Gay Porter DeNileon, project manager for AWWA. Communities must distribute their first confidence reports by Oct. 19 and annually by July 1 thereafter.
The AWWA program consists of a series of online forms (at www.ccrbuilder.com). Utilities enter information in a variety of categories, and the program compiles the information in a format compliant with the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Data to be entered by users includes: * water system identification, including the system name and contact information; * descriptions of water sources, including the source types, names and locations; * descriptions of detected contaminants, including whole number MCL and MCLG; regulated (and certain unregulated) and ICR data; known or likely sources; duration of violations (if any), health effects and action taken. * Cryptosporidium and radon analyses, including test results and their significance; * descriptions of treatment techniques, monitoring/ reporting practices, record keeping and violations in relation to other drinking water regulations; * health effects for nitrate, arsenic, lead and THM; and * educational information, including second-language statements and basic information about the utility.
Once the information is compiled, the user can print the completed report or download it into a word processing or graphics program to customize it for public distribution. Later this year, AWWA also will establish an Internet site, on which communities that have used the online program can post their completed reports.
The cost for using the AWWA’s online program is $75 per report. For more information about CCRbuilder, contact Kelly Enders at AWWA, (303) 734-3410.
Water use is dropping in the United States. That is the conclusion of the latest water-use study by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Reston, Va., which has compiled and reported national water-use statistics every five years since 1950.
According to the report, published last October, Americans were using 402 billion gallons of water per day in 1995. That figure indicates a 2 percent reduction in water use since 1990 and nearly a 10 percent reduction since 1980, despite a continuous increase in population.
Per capita use of fresh water also is decreasing. Total per capita use was 1,280 gallons per day in 1995, as compared with 1,340 gallons per day in 1990.
Report highlights include: * Water sources. Nearly 84 percent of the nation’s population is served by public water supply systems, up 4 percent since 1990. * Reclaimed water. The use of reclaimed wastewater was estimated at 1,020 million gallons per day for 1995, representing a 36 percent increase since 1990. Illinois and Ohio reported the largest releases of treated wastewater. * Regional consumptive use. Freshwater consumptive use (the part of withdrawn water that is evaporated, transpired or incorporated into products or crops) accounts for about 12 percent of withdrawals in the East, while making up 47 percent of withdrawals in the West. The mapping agency also has identified the following changes in water use since 1990: * Rural domestic and livestock use has increased 13 percent; * use for thermoelectric power has decreased 3 percent; * use for hydroelectric power has decreased 4 percent; * industrial use has decreased 3 percent; and * use for irrigation has de-creased 2 percent.
To order a free copy of “Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 1995,” write to USGS Information Services, Box 25286, Denver Federal Center, Denver CO 80225, or fax your request to (303) 202-4693. An online copy, which may be searched by county and watershed, is available at http://water.usgs.gov/public/ watuse/.
In the heart of the Pacific Northwest, where the Snake and Columbia rivers meet, a passionate debate has erupted over the futures of four federally owned dams. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering breaching the Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Lower Granite dams. Local officials, threatened by a likely shift in their economic bases, are uniformly opposed to the idea, while conservationists applaud the possibility of restored fish runs.
Located along the Lower Snake River, the dams were built between 1962 and 1975 to provide hydropower. As an added economic benefit, they enabled the river to accommodate large barges, giving rise to inland ports in Lewiston, Idaho; Clarkston, Wash.; and Whitman County, Wash. However, at the same time, they inhibited migratory passage of the region’s salmon.
“The issue is how to save the salmon,” says Margaret Bowman, director of dam projects for American Rivers, Washington, D.C. “The salmon is a mainstay of the history, economics and politics of the region. The salmon are dying, and one of the main causes of the salmon decline is the dams.
“We’ve gotten a lot of benefit out of the dams on the Columbia-Snake system,” she adds. “But the last dams to be built were the four Lower Snake dams, and, since then, the salmon have gone into precipitous decline.”
No one is disputing that the salmon fishery is an important asset to the region. But city and county leaders contend that breaching would not ensure the salmon’s recovery, and they predict that it would ensure a radical change in their communities’ economic structures – specifically, in the ports that provide jobs, as well as inexpensive shipping for area crops and forest products.
“Breaching would be a catastrophe for the state,” says Paul Beddoe, policy analyst for the Idaho Association of Counties (IAC), based in Boise. “It would devastate agriculture by drawing out all that water and by adding costs to shipping grain.”
In a 1998 resolution denouncing Lower Snake breachings, IAC stated that “current science does not show with reasonable certainty that breaching the dams will restore the fish populations.” It went on to say that “the economic health of north Idaho depends on the continuing viability of the Port of Lewiston and the services provided by the dams … .” Nez Perce County (home to Lewiston) passed a similar resolution last year, as did the Whitman County Commission.
“It’s been heavily studied, and the science indicates that the best chance of recovering the salmon is to remove the four dams,” Bowman says. “It’s mainly a concern of downstream passage. Instead of being flushed downstream in a fast-flowing river, the fish are having to swim through reservoirs. [Between] the effort of swimming through the reservoirs and the temperature in the reservoirs, they can’t make it.”
Jim Soyk, chairman of the Nez Perce County Commission, acknowledges that the salmon population is declining, but he is skeptical that dam breaching will reverse that. “Something more than just the dams is [affecting the salmon],” he says. “There’s too much science telling us that, while the dams certainly have had some effect on those fish runs, there are rivers with no dams that are showing similar declines. There’s the changing ocean environment and changing ocean temperatures, and terns and other predators are taking a lot of the smolts.
“There was a time when I really did not want to see the dams go on these rivers because they’re beautiful, pristine rivers,” Soyk continues. “But the pressure of economics prevailed. Dams were put in, and this whole system was put in place – a system of barged traffic, a system that gave us the cheapest electricity in the United States, and a system that allowed us to irrigate these lands and make them productive. After spending millions of dollars to develop this system, what happens if we spend millions of dollars to get rid of it, and we still don’t get our fish back?”
Bowman counters that, should the dams be breached, the loss of hydropower would “not be a major cost factor,” and the impact on irrigation could be remedied by extending the existing intake pipes to the new level of the river. She concedes that breaching would require mitigation for individual job loss, as well as rail line restoration and road upgrades to accommodate surface shipping. As the salmon population recovers, commercial fishing could reopen, offsetting the losses suffered by the ports, she adds.
As an alternative, IAC supports barging the smolts downstream, and Soyk suggests that a moratorium on fishing may aid recovery of the salmon population. “That’s probably, in the eyes of most, too big a sacrifice to make,” he notes.
Clarification of the Lower Snake debate is expected this fall, when the Corps issues its assessment of the potential environmental impacts of breaching the four dams. Additionally, by the end of this year, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) must recommend a permanent recovery plan for the endangered salmon and steelhead trout in the Columbia-Snake system.
Even if NMFS recommends breaching, the debate is far from settled. The decision to breach a federal dam and the funds to accomplish that would have to be approved by Congress, meaning that resolution still could be years away.