Coming together to restore our rivers: notes on a dam removal symposium

Earlier this spring, American Rivers and Resources Legacy Fund collaborated to stage a first-of-its-kind symposium on dam removal in Washington, DC. Attendees from federal, state, and local agencies; Tribes; nonprofits; and philanthropies came together for a spirited, two-day discussion on the movement to remove dams and restore our rivers.

More than two dozen speakers made clear – if it wasn’t obvious already – that dam removal is having a moment. With the Klamath dams finally coming down and dozens of other projects moving forward across the country, the call to remove dams in the name of healthier rivers and communities has reached a crescendo.

And while dam removal was the topic of discussion, our conversations kept returning to an essential point: Restoring rivers is restoring communities. Across the nation, diverse interests are coming together to forge new bonds and rebuild our relationship with our most precious resource.

Avi Garbow, President of Resources Legacy Fund, made the case that dam removal is now fully developed as an effective, multi-benefit tool for environmental restoration. Over the last decade, Avi noted, the field has proven the concept that communities can – through dam removal and water infrastructure modernization – more efficiently meet irrigation and municipal water needs, improve safety, and restore rivers to more natural, healthier flows.

Tom Kiernan, President and CEO of American Rivers, opened the symposium by stressing the urgency of river restoration, highlighting a series of crises affecting rivers. A climate crisis, a biodiversity crisis, and an environmental justice crisis are all being amplified by the presence of dams on nearly every river in America. Tom called for dam removal on a scale appropriate to the crises. American Rivers’ goal is to remove 30,000 dams by 2030.

The scale of the need for this work was top of mind. With more than half a million dams across the country, many of them outdated and unsafe, massive amounts of collective action and funding will be needed to tackle the problem. Fortunately, dam removal recently got a boost in momentum with the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 (BIL), which provided more than $2.4 billion in funding for dam removal and river restoration. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) added to that trove.

And while this influx of funding is great news, proper implementation is key. It is now up to federal agencies to move these stimulus dollars into local economies both quickly and thoughtfully. So far, they are succeeding. During the symposium, we saw great examples of collaboration among the many federal agencies present– including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Forest Service, and Army Corps of Engineers, among others. An Interagency Fish Passage Task Force has even been established to ensure close coordination between the thirteen federal agencies engaged in dam removal.

Looking ahead to the next rounds of grants, the federal agency representatives talked at length about how they are working to identify and fund what they see as transformational fish passage projects. These projects involve multiple dam removals, span full watersheds, require the engagement of multiple agencies, and offer a multitude of ecological, economic, and community benefits. In short, agencies are looking for projects that deliver the biggest bang for the taxpayer’s buck.

This strategic focus and commitment to interagency collaboration has been well received by the field.  Open Rivers Fund has worked closely with American Rivers and others over many years to ensure there is a pipeline of “shovel-ready” dam removal and river restoration projects. Now that large pots of funding are available, we’re excited to see federal agencies coalesce around the projects we seeded and take them across the finish line.

State and local agency representatives, along with other stakeholders, offered stellar examples of collaboration as well. Dam removals are possible – in all cases – because a wide range of interests were able to forge agreement. This typically requires reasoned discussion among ranchers, environmentalists, anglers, city managers, water districts, Tribes, state and federal agencies, and many others. All have something to contribute, and all have something to gain.

These agreements are the reason why there is real momentum behind dam removal and why we now see it in widespread use across the country – in rural and urban settings, on big concrete structures and small gravel diversions, in arid and rainy climates, and in communities that span the political spectrum. This diversity was evident in the stakeholders present at the symposium, and in the projects they’ve led.

Over the last eight years, Open Rivers Fund has learned that there is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to dam removal, but that when communities come together to craft a solution, transformational change is possible. Coming out of this year’s symposium, we’re heartened to see all the good that has come from this work and are excited to see the momentum continue.