The United States has led the world in dam construction for the past 100 years. They are utilized for hydroelectricity, flood control, irrigation, and community water storage. While dams may help communities, they come with a steep price.
Not only do dams cost tens of thousands of dollars to maintain, but they also compromise water quality and connectivity. Fish are limited in their ability to search for food, ingress spawning habitats, or escape predation. Dams trap sediment which may smother redds and cause river flow to slow and water to heat up, leading to algal blooms. Continually, outdated and obsolete dams pose a safety threat to local communities. Yet, dam removal provides an opportunity for river ecosystems to flourish back to their natural state. Fish, birds, mammals, and community members alike all benefit from a healthy, connected watershed.
1. Elwha Dam – Elwha River, WA
After two decades of planning, the largest dam removal in the United States began in September 2011 and took 6 months to complete. Removal of the dam allowed for 45 miles of salmon species habitat to be connected, and the fish are storming back.
2. Clark Brothers Dam – Quinnipiac River, CT
Connecticut nonprofit, Save the Sound, spearheaded the removal of the Clark Brothers Dam in 2016. Over 16 miles of the river were opened to migratory fish such as striped bass, alewives, and American shad.
3. Noosak Middle Fork River Dam – Middle Fork River, WA
In 2020, approximately 16 miles of cool clean water were opened up for the Endangered Species listed Puget Sound salmon, steelhead, and bull trout.
4. Mill Dam & Powerhouse Dam – Cuyahoga Falls, OH
These two dams in Ohio were removed in 2013 due to their threat to public safety as well as water quality concerns. What was once considered one of the most polluted river systems in the U.S. is now the focus of regeneration and the establishment of free flow benefitting over 60 different species of fish.
5. Condit Dam – White Salmon River, WA
The removal of the Condit dam began in October 2011 and was completed in one year. After 100 years, 18 miles of river were made accessible to residential and migratory aquatic species.
Thankfully, today dams are being deconstructed faster than they are being designed and built. In locations where dams have been removed, the success of watershed restoration is extraordinary–just look at the Elwha River, where wild steelhead have made an extraordinary comeback. We hope to see an increase in removal across the country in the years to come. The introduction of the 21st Century Dams Act and publicity surrounding the four lower Snake River dams show that the fight has just begun.
It is no longer just an environmental issue but a movement that connects entire communities near and far to work together for something bigger than themselves. Countless successful removals show that we can all work together to fix the dam problem.