Dam Ownership – The Argument For and Against Keeping a Dam

West Henniker Creek, before after dam removal | American Rivers

West Henniker Creek, NH | American Rivers

This blog is a part of our series this month on River Restoration Challenges.

Dam owners come in all stripes. Many are private individuals, but others are government entities, companies, and even non-profits. Regardless, all dam owners face the same fundamental choice: whether to continue to maintain their dam or to remove it. To make this decision, dam owners weigh the benefits provided by their dam against the costs of keeping it in place.

Some dams provide real benefits to the dam owner and sometimes to the surrounding community as well. Certain types of dams can provide hydropower or flood protection, and others provide still-water recreation like motor-boating and waterskiing. These benefits can be very valuable to certain stakeholders, but they always have associated costs. The question for a dam owner is whether the costs are justified and sustainable.

When working with dam owners, we find that financial costs are usually at the forefront of their decision calculus. Just like bridges or buildings, dams require significant upkeep in order to maintain them in a safe and useful condition. Dams have engineering lifespans, and in addition to regular maintenance, require significant retrofits periodically. Since dam owners are responsible for the dam structure, they face significant costs associated with dam upkeep for as long as they own the dam.

Dam owners are also exposed to significant liability should something bad happen with the dam, such as a swimmer getting injured or killed or the dam failing and destroying property downstream. Even the most conscientious dam owners cannot eliminate these risks. Dam owners can also face regulatory risks and compliance costs ensuring that their dam meets the state dam safety regulations and complies with other laws.

Of course not all risks and costs associated with a dam can be viewed simply from a financial perspective. When working with dam owners, one of my primary goals is to help the dam owner broaden their decision calculus to account for more than just maintenance cost and liability risks. Dams have significant environmental and social costs that are not counted in dollars, with each dam leaving a unique impact on its river. Some dams block migratory fish, causing fish populations to decrease and some species to become endangered. Other dams create habitat for invasive species that disrupt the entire ecosystem of the river and surrounding riparian areas. Some dams sever spectacular canyons where whitewater rafting or canoeing could provide recreation and tourism. Other dams endanger life and property by causing flooding or unsafe conditions.

I ask each dam owner I work with to consider not only what it will take to keep their dam maintained in operating order, but what other costs and impacts will ensue if the dam is kept in place. We find that in most cases, a cursory analysis of the pros and cons of dam removal is all that is necessary to convince a dam owner to seriously consider dam removal as a strategy for maintaining their land going forward. Based on the sharp rise in dam removals across the country in recent years, it is clear that more and more dam owners are concluding that the benefits of their dams simply do not justify their costs any longer.