Matilija Dam | Rogue River | Nelson Dam

Open Rivers Fund


The Problem

Nearly two million dams stand in rivers throughout the United States. Their sizes vary widely in width and height, ranging from three feet to well more than a hundred feet tall. They serve a range of purposes critical to our communities, including flood control, water storage and irrigation, hydropower, navigation, and recreation. Like much of the country’s aging infrastructure, however, most of these dams are past their projected 50 year lifespan—by 2020, 65 percent will be more than 50 years old and 27 percent will be more than 80 years old.

What made sense to communities 50 or 100 years ago, often does not make sense today, as the nation struggles to rebuild and modernize its aging infrastructure in ways that address current needs. Many dams no longer serve any significant purpose, and communities are taking heed. Obsolete dams can pose enormous financial, liability, and environmental risks. Some are in such dilapidated condition as to create significant safety concerns for surrounding communities. In other cases, maintenance and regulatory compliance costs exceed the cost of dam removal for dam operators, including the federal government. And many of the nation’s dams are causing profound ecological damage: blocking fish passage up and down rivers, preventing fish from spawning; degrading water quality; and impeding the movement of sediment needed for healthy rivers and for replenishing coastal beaches.

The Fund

3d_west_11232016-thumbopen-rivers-fund-thumbnail-3With leadership and support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and in celebration of Hewlett’s 50th anniversary, RLF launched the Open Rivers Fund in November 2016. Over a 10-year period, the Open Rivers Fund will support local community efforts to remove obsolete dams, modernize infrastructure, and restore rivers across the western United States. The Fund aims to create significant economic, community, and environmental benefits by undertaking projects with widespread community support and collaboration.

Drawing on the expertise of the Open Rivers Fund Advisory Committee, RLF is assessing and pursuing dam removal and river restoration opportunities in collaboration with diverse interests and local communities throughout the West. The Fund seeks to enable communities to better manage their infrastructure and natural resources. The Fund will test new models for reducing the significant financial, legal, and structural hurdles that have stalled progress in advancing some of these projects, and empower communities to address their environmental and infrastructure needs.

RLF has launched the Open Rivers Fund by supporting three initial projects and is developing additional projects to undertake in the future. The initial projects include removal of Matilija Dam on Matilija Creek (tributary to the Ventura River in California) along with restoration of the Ventura River Watershed and development of the Ventura River Parkway; dam removal and restoration projects on key Rogue River tributaries in Oregon; and removal of the Nelson Dam and restoration on the Naches River (tributary to the Yakima River in Washington).