Growing momentum for dam removals through collaboration

Potomac Industrial Dam | © American Rivers

The Potomac Industrial Dam removal project serves as a model for collaboration between stakeholders | © American Rivers

We’ve had a pretty good run these last couple of years when it comes to river restoration. As the freedom cry of salmon rang out with explosives at Condit Dam and construction equipment mobilized to dismantle the Elwha Dam, we declared 2011 the Year of the River 2012/2013 have been just as pivotal. Access to historic fish habitat is finally being restored on the Penobscot with the removal of the Great Works Dam and construction beginning on Veazie Dam. In fact, more than 17 dam removals are currently underway on different rivers around the country.

As we celebrate these successes, it’s important to remember the number of partners and years of hard work that went into making many of these projects happen. We like to make it sound simple (and sometimes the pieces fall into place and it is) but there are often years of negotiations and planning (and sweat and tears) leading up to the moment when the backhoe rolls onto the scene. A challenge that goes along with this is the difficulty in keeping our partners and local communities, and even our members and funders, interested and engaged when projects can take years to implement.

A good example of one of these more complex projects is the Potomac Industrial Dam on the Potomac River. As you round the bend on I-68, the Potomac flows through the city of Cumberland, Maryland. Hidden from the highway, but right below the iconic “Blue Bridge”, is the dam. Originally built for industrial water supply in the 1950s, it now serves no purpose other than to provide a bit of backwater for the pumps that water the C&O Canal.

In July 2009, Allegany County Chamber of Commerce spearheaded what is referred to as the River Project and brought a diverse group of constituents together to create a vision for the Potomac. Some of the ideas that rose to the top included: river access, clean water, a learning laboratory and removal of the dam for ecological and recreational purposes.

Since that visioning session, the city—partnering with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, American Rivers and others—undertook a dam removal feasibility study. Among the issues assessed were the project’s potential impacts on the Blue Bridge, water withdrawals for the canal, and the levees, as well as assessing the sediment behind the dam.

While the preliminary study found the dam removal feasible and most of the concerns to either be non-issues or something that could be remedied during a later phase, the discovery of contaminants (dioxin) in the sediment samples caused some concern and requires additional attention.

The last two years have focused on creating a plan to further evaluate the sediment, meeting with state officials to ensure we are meeting the state standards for assessment, and trying to find the funding to conduct this research. While funding for restoration projects is often an issue, securing money for the initial assessment and design costs can be a huge hurdle.

We’re finally getting closer to being able to complete the assessment at the Potomac Industrial Dam. When we surpass this hurdle, our next steps will be to secure funding to complete the design of the removal, including developing a sediment management plan, hydraulic and hydrologic modeling, and several other critical design tasks.

This design will need to ensure the integrity of the levees and bridge remains the same (or are improved), as well as ensure water can continue to be pumped to the canal. Woven into this design process is a series of approvals that will need to be gained at the municipal, state and federal levels of government.

Cumberland is a community that cares about its river and wants the Potomac to play an important role in the city’s future. It is this dedication that keeps them engaged.

How do you stay engaged and motivated when taking on a long-term project?