Making Hydropower Dams Work Better

Deschutes River

Reintroducing steelhead fry | Credit: Hydropower Reform Coalition

It’s a good year for rivers.

Last week, the National Park Service began chipping away at the Glines Canyon and Elwha Dams. When the dams are removed in 2-3 years, it’ll be the culmination of a nearly 30-year effort to restore the Elwha River and its fisheries. When it’s complete, it’ll be the largest dam removal ever and the Elwha will flow free for the first time in well over a generation.

Later next month, I’ll be out in Washington to watch PacifiCorp punch a hole in the bottom of the Condit dam on the White Salmon River, another historic river restoration project that is years in the making.

A river without dams will always be healthier than the same river with dams, so for a guy like me who loves rivers, it’s really exciting to see these dams come out. And there’s been a lot of excitement lately: more than 1,000 old, obsolete dams have been removed in the U.S. to date. We’re calling it the Year of the River.

But it’s also worth taking a moment to remember that most dams aren’t going anywhere, and with good reason. If we woke up tomorrow to discover that every dam in the world had vanished overnight, our rivers would be much better off. But we’ve grown to depend on many dams to help us light our houses, irrigate our crops, and supply our cities with water. Make no mistake: these dams are still hurting rivers. But since we need them, the responsible thing to do is to find ways to make them cause as little harm as possible.

This is exactly what American Rivers and its partner groups in the Hydropower Reform Coalition have been doing for the past couple of decades: working with dam owners to get them to improve the environmental performance of working hydropower dams. In more than 20 years of working on hydropower, only 222 MW of hydropower capacity have been removed or slated for removal. During that same time, American Rivers and its partners have supported the continued long-term operation of more than 16,000 MW of hydropower at dams where owners have modernized their operations to benefit fisheries, watershed lands, water quality, and recreation.

Here are some of the results:

  • South Carolina Electric & Gas will provide better flows for fish, water quality, and recreation on the Saluda and Congaree Rivers
  • A 2004 agreement on Oregon’s Pelton-Round Butte Project – now jointly owned by Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs – is restoring Salmon and Steelhead to the upper reaches of the Deschutes River for the first time in decades while continuing to supply more than 366 MW of power to customers. This year, the first adult salmon since 1968 returned to the Upper Deschutes.
  • In the Little Tennessee basin in North Carolina and Tennessee, we supported a new 40-year operating license for Aloca’s Tapoco project. Alcoa agreed to protect 10,000 acres of pristine watershed lands adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, provide passage for four types of endangered fish, put water back into two previously dry stretches of river to improve fisheries, whitewater boating, and tourism, and invested more than $12 million in local restoration and recreation projects.
  • In 2000, an agreement with Pacific Gas and Electric on the Mokelumne River restored flows modeled after the river’s natural seasonal patterns to about 90 miles of affected river, brought back four high quality whitewater boating runs, and removed three damaged dams that weren’t generating hydropower to restore three headwater streams.

It’s slow, steady work, and it may not grab the headlines like a high-profile dam removal, but the results are pretty amazing.