Energy and Environment Program

Dialogue on Dams and Rivers

Dam Removal - A New Option For A New CenturyDownload the full report, Dam Removal - A New Option For A New Century (PDF format, 530 KB)

 

Download a printable summary of the report (PDF format, 63 KB)

The United States relies on dams and reservoirs. From the earliest settlements to today, communities have diverted and stored water for many uses. Now, however, along rivers and lakes from New England to California, some of the tens of thousands of dams in the United States are aging beyond their expected lifespan, and some are causing a variety of safety, environmental, and other problems. Dealing with these situations can be a costly and controversial task, complicated by society's changing views of dams. Once perceived as almost entirely beneficial, dams are seen more realistically today as having both positive and negative effects. Some of the tens of thousands of dams in the United States are aging beyond their expected lifespan, and some are causing a variety of safety, environmental, and other problems.

One possible solution to these dilemmas-and in some cases the best solution-is dam removal. The removal of some dams can be straightforward and inexpensive. But for many dams, evaluating and implementing this option can be difficult.

In September 2000, the Energy and Environment Program invited a group of twenty-six experts to address these issues in a series of intentional, values-based dialogues. Dam Removal - A New Option For A New Century (PDF format, 530 KB) offers the group's recommendations and practical advice aimed at integrating the dam removal option into river management decisions evaluating the options fairly and, if appropriate, implementing the dam removal option efficiently. The imprimatur of this diverse group, with interests that are often at odds, lends a unique weight to the recommendations.

Premises

During the initial dialogues that produced this report, participants agreed on a set of shared premises which provided grounds for further exploration and eventually for the recommendations and action items (detailed in Part I of the report). This agreement was reached only after consideration of the full range of dams, from abandoned mill dams to large, multipurpose dams, and after agreement that removal of a dam can be a reasonable approach to meeting a variety of economic, ecological, water resource, public safety and owner objectives.

The group also developed a list of opportunities that can set the consideration of dam removal in motion, priority issues to consider in dam removal, and lessons learned in the collective experience of the group in implementing dam removal (described in Part II of the report).

Recommendations

The Aspen group recommends the following to policymakers and practitioners at the national, state, and local levels:

  • Reflect the scale of the project and scope of the project's impacts in the depth and type of analysis associated with a decision about any dam.
  • Integrate dam removal at appropriate levels as an option in decisionmaking regarding dams, including the regulatory process, watershed planning, and community decision making.
  • Review all dam structures and operations periodically and within a reasonable time frame; reviews should address environmental, economic, and social benefits and impacts in addition to dam safety.
  • Provide public notice and opportunity for comment regarding dam removal decisions when public resources are affected.
  • Consider social, ecological, and historical values in decisionmaking about dam removal.
  • Address the rights of dam owners and beneficiaries of dam services.
  • Revise permitting processes to ensure that shortterm impacts of dam removal do not preclude projects for which restoration benefits outweigh those impacts.
  • Coordinate policies and regulatory programs affecting dam removal.
  • Expand, integrate, and where necessary establish dam inventories so that a comprehensive inventory of all dams (regardless of size) is available.
  • Develop technical guidance and site-appropriate practices for implementing dam removal.
  • Increase scientific research and educational curricula on dam removal.
  • Provide public education on dams and dam removal.
  • Establish and maintain a user-friendly, centralized, Web-based clearinghouse for dam removal information.
  • Establish financial responsibility for dam removal.
  • Improve funding opportunities for dam removal.