In the last few years, we’ve witnessed what is becoming a profound change across the American West. Obsolete dams are coming down. Streams are being restored. Tribes are reconnecting with the fish runs of their ancestors. Irrigation diversions are easier to manage. And water is cleaner.
If one follows the water through our nation’s rivers, the removal of these dams might look like isolated incidents. But the individual acts are adding up to a significant whole, and momentum is growing. Change like this doesn’t happen overnight. It takes careful planning, prudent investment, smart partnerships, and effective tools.
Thanks to the vision of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Open Rivers Fund is working in 44 watersheds across the American West to remove obsolete dams and other river obstructions. In 2016, the Hewlett Foundation entrusted Resources Legacy Fund to manage this transformative 10-year, $50 million effort, recognizing the opportunity before us to reimagine the long-intractable, zero-sum mythology of dams towards a new and necessary vision of balance.
The scale of the Open Rivers Fund – its duration and its dollar amount – is a testament to the Hewlett Foundation’s thoughtful, patient approach. Dam removals often take many years and the true impact of a program like this necessarily builds over time, as more communities see the benefits and share their stories. Stories like one recently published on the Hewlett Foundation’s website are showcasing the real-life benefits of dam removals to communities. The dams highlighted in these stories are as diverse in typology, geography, and hydrology as they are in the stakeholders coming together to remove them.
People are the heart of the Open Rivers Fund, and community partnerships the engine for the work. We support local agencies, Tribes, nonprofits, landowners, and universities coming together to resolve their water infrastructure problems and restore rivers for the benefit of their economies, cultures, and habitats. In many of the watersheds where we work, talking about water is contentious, but as stakeholders focus on everyday challenges, those conversations get easier.
We never tire of sharing our partners’ success stories because they are inspiring and draw attention to the gains enjoyed by communities, Tribes, farmers, and fish. To further accelerate this work, we also are advancing policy and funding measures on the local, state, and national level that support future dam removal efforts. Four years into this work, we are excited to share our progress. Here is a snapshot from a few of our partners:
- Columbia Land Trust and the Cowlitz Indian Tribe are partnering to preserve 1,300 acres of timberland and remove the Kwoneesum Dam on Washington’s Wildboy Creek. This project will reconnect the Tribe to historic fishing grounds, while also supporting the local timber economy.
- Rogue Basin Partnership members, such as the Rogue River Watershed Council and the Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council, are working strategically to remove up to 50 barriers along tributaries of the Rogue River, which will open 150 miles of cool-water spawning grounds and fish nurseries. Early work on reforming the permitting process in southern Oregon is accelerating dam removal approvals across the region.
- The Conservation Fund, Trout Unlimited, and Native Village of Eklutna are coordinating to restore salmon runs outside Anchorage, Alaska. Following removal of the 70-foot-tall Eklutna Dam in 2017, their work now focuses on accelerating the timetable for releasing flows from upstream Eklutna Lake that are sufficient to sustain healthy salmon populations so vital to Alaska’s economy and culture.
- City of Missoula and Trout Unlimited partnered in removing the defunct 60-foot-wide Rattlesnake Dam this past summer. The dam blocked fish passage to 31 miles of habitat and posed a safety and liability risk to the community. Citizen science teams from the community, led by the local nonprofit, Watershed Education Network, continue to monitor the restoration effort.
- Landowners along the Bear River in Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah are experiencing the benefits of a recontoured river open to fish passage that also allows continued irrigation with easier, more efficient infrastructure. In the words of one Wyoming rancher, “It’s made my life a lot easier.”
Open Rivers Fund is making a concerted effort to right the historic wrongs that have disproportionately settled on Indigenous communities from the peppering of dams across the West. Dams have for years struck at the heart of Indigenous communities who have seen their lands erased in reservoirs and cultural fisheries disappear from rivers. We are now partnering with 15 Tribes on 13 dam removal projects, supporting the stewardship and restoration work they know how to do better than anyone.
Change of this magnitude requires brains, brawn, and bucks. The Hewlett Foundation’s vision and investment are empowering hundreds of diverse partnerships—among Tribes, farmers, government agencies, nonprofits, and hydroelectric companies—to reimagine our rivers of tomorrow. Follow our progress on social media at #openriversfund.