Mapping Dam Removal Success

Union Dam, Patapsco River, MD

Union Dam, Patapsco River, MD

Earlier this year, American Rivers was excited to release our map of over 1,150 dam removals and counting from across the United States. The interactive map provides both a tool for river advocates and a lens through which to view the success of dam removal.

Using our dam removal map, we’ve looked at the patterns of dam removal rates and geography and given some thought to what these changes mean for river restoration, as well as considered what it takes to facilitate more dam removal.

Important Points about the Map Data and Analysis

  1. The information is gathered from partners and state reported data, so there may be some removals missing.
  2. Each state defines a ‘dam’ differently based on size and other factors, so not all removals may be tracked by state dam safety offices.
  3. We’ve been collecting annual dam removal information since 1998, and have looked for additional data before that time.
US Dams Removed in 2013

US Dams Removed in 2013

The great news is that the rate of dam removals continues to increase, particularly in the last 10 years as dam removal has become more common and the benefits are more widely understood. The obvious state standouts for removals as of 2013 are Pennsylvania and Wisconsin with 255 and 132 dam removals, respectively. When we look at what has worked so well in these states, we see similarities in both states in how they approach river restoration.

Keys to Fostering Dam Removal Success

  1. Strong project managers— In areas where there are established project managers, or new river advocates are trained in dam removal project management, we see more dams being removed. While it may seem obvious, it’s worth noting because it means that we need people trained in dam removal management to make projects happen.
  2. Effective regulations and regulators— River and wetlands regulations need to balance the short-term impacts of restoration practices like dam removal with the long-term benefits provided by a free flowing and self-sustaining river.
  3. Effective dam safety— The majority of dams that are removed are those that are not in use and not maintained. In states where dam safety laws are clear and enforced, dam owners have an incentive to remove those unmaintained dams.
  4. Dedicated funding— Having a dedicated funding source within a state helps to get projects started and keep projects going when combined with outside grants from foundations and federal restoration partners.

Transferring Lessons to Other States

US Dam Removal by State
US Dam Removal by State
(click to enlarge)

Several years ago, American Rivers took notice of what was working so well in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and started trying to effect change in other states on the factors listed above. We have found that when we work with partners to improve permitting, increase funding, train project managers and improve dam safety, we see increasing dam removal rates.

The other pieces key to making dam removal work are leadership and the momentum created through successful projects and partnership building. By working on these issues, we hope that in the coming years the map of dam removal success really takes off and we see more and more miles of free flowing rivers. Already in 2014, we are working to add more points to the map! Also, keep an eye out for our annual list of dam removals this winter.