World Water Day 2024: Peacebuilding through Dam Removal

This Friday, March 22, is World Water Day. Each year, the United Nations marks the day, March 22, by highlighting the importance of freshwater and the need for more collaborative and sustainable water management.

The theme for this year’s global observance is “Water for Peace.” That plea seems apt. Around the world, we see ample evidence that water scarcity creates and prolongs conflict, while cooperative and equitable approaches to water management can foster peace – building prosperity and resilience for all.

In the American West, water use has been a source of conflict for well over a century – the words water and peace rarely occur in the same sentence. Ranchers, Indigenous Peoples, urban dwellers, and environmentalists have long disagreed over the use and care of our most precious resource. But the zero-sum mindset of the past – and our approach to water management – is starting to change.

The Open Rivers Fund, a multi-year program focused on restoring rivers for people and wildlife across the American West, works with communities to remove outdated and decaying dams and modernize water infrastructure. This work not only restores critical ecosystems, but often results in real economic, recreational, and social benefits for the communities that rely on our rivers. Since 2016, we have worked alongside hundreds of partners to take down 80 river barriers and open up more than one thousand river miles. This success is only possible because diverse stakeholders, many with competing priorities, are coming together to find shared solutions.

In communities across the West, ranchers are supporting dam removals because it means modernizing their water infrastructure and improving the efficiency of their operations as we face drought and decreased water supply. Tribes and Indigenous communities, whose ancestral lands and waters sustained them since time immemorial, have been advocating to open up rivers and restore their fishing rights for more than a century. And local governments seeking to build and support vibrant communities increasingly see dam removal as a tool to improve recreational opportunities, boost local economies, and reduce public safety risks.

Removing a dam, even a small one, is a challenging task, and very much a team effort; it requires the support of stakeholders who don’t always see eye to eye. A focus on only one benefit – fish passage, for example – is rarely enough to see a project through. To get their needs met, stakeholders must listen to and acknowledge the needs of others and be open to creative solutions they hadn’t previously considered. And that’s where transformation, and healing of historic division, often happens. Time and time again, we’ve seen that as more people are given seats at the table, effective projects acquire more supporters and unlikely alliances help push dam removals to completion.

It’s extraordinary, for example, to see the how this type of collaboration and acknowledgement of others’ needs helped drive the success of Washington State’s Yakima Basin Integrated Plan – a decades-long effort to support resilient water supplies and salmon restoration. As the region’s partners worked together to plan the removal of Nelson Dam, leaders from the Yakama Nation acknowledged the city of Yakima’s needs for consistent water supply, growers saw the importance of the Tribe’s fishing rights, the county of Yakima worked on recreational access, and conservationists supported flood risk reduction –  all accomplished through projects that hinged on removal of the dam. In other words, there was mutual agreement about the collective benefits despite the unlikelihood of their alliance. Their ability to come together enabled each stakeholder to meet their needs while taking less water from the river, helping both river and community to heal and find peace.

This type of community-led transformation, a result of collaborative discussion about water use, can have ripple effects. The prospects for more domestic tranquility on a very local level increase when people come together to reconsider how best to use and protect their water. The skills developed to restore rivers can restore communities in other ways. Listening to one another can become habit forming.