Dam Removal and Historic Preservation: Reconciling Dual Objective

Introduction

“History is a guide to navigation in perilous times.  History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
–David C. McCullough, author

“America is a great story, and there is a river on every page of it.”
– Charles Kuralt, author

Did you ever have a favorite place growing up that now, every time you drive by, it reminds you of your childhood?  Whether it is a bridge, farm, a dam, or some other memorable landmark, there are historic structures and places across the country that have special significance to their communities.  Historic preservation laws were devised to protect cultural, archaeological, and architectural sites, structures, and landscapes that are significant to our heritage.  While one generally envisions houses, cemeteries, and battlefields as having historic significance, other structures such as dams and bridges can be historically significant and may receive protection if their engineering is unique and/or they served an important role in local, state, or national history.  Historic preservation and conservation organizations often partner on issues such as urban sprawl and smart growth, finding ways to simultaneously preserve our nation’s heritage and natural environment.  As our nation’s infrastructure continues to age and we come to recognize its impact on the environment, river restoration projects can create opportunities for historic preservation and environmental restoration interests to work together. 

In some cases, efforts to restore rivers involve proposals for removal of dams.  A majority of dams were constructed prior to passage of both the National Historic Preservation Act (1966) and the National Environmental Policy Act (1969) and thus were built without the procedural safeguards now mandated by those statutes.  Some of the dams that were once integral to our nation’s growth—providing power for grist mills and industrial cities, municipal drinking water, and electricity —no longer serve their intended purpose; costly repair may be needed to prevent their failure and ensure safety as these structures age.  According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, one-quarter of the nation’s dams are older than 50 years; that number will increase to 85 percent by the year 2020.  Because of their deterioration and additional documentation on the detrimental effects dams have on river ecosystems, dam removal has become an increasingly pragmatic method for restoring natural river functions and eliminating unsafe infrastructure.  Removing a dam can provide many benefits, such as allowing migratory fish species access to historic spawning grounds, improving water quality and the natural movement of sediment and other nutrients, and reestablishing the natural flow regime .  However, restoring environmental balance to our nation’s rivers may affect historic structures and archaeological sites, triggering state and federal historic preservation laws, and interest in preserving a piece of local history, as well as providing an opportunity for historic discovery . 

Dam Removal and Historic Preservation: Reconciling Dual Objectives was written because too often advocates for river restoration through dam removal find themselves in the middle of a project and at odds with potential partners over matters of historic preservation.  Dam removal proponents need to better understand the processes established to protect historic values so they can work more effectively in partnership with historic preservation interests to establish and achieve mutual goals.   While the historic fisheries that helped build this nation, from providing sustenance to Washington’s troops during the American Revolution to their role as a sacred species to many tribes, deserve recognition, it is also important to respect the role of the dam, and in some cases the impoundment, in building local communities and sometimes as the social center for a town.  The primary audiences for this report are dam removal project managers such as state agencies, community leaders, watershed groups, consultants.  It is also our hope that local historic preservation societies and associations will also find it useful.  Furthermore, we hope that this document will help parties involved in such endeavors to build constructive relationships and successfully reconcile potentially competing objectives. 

This report begins with a primer on Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the federal law that applies to many proposed dam removal projects.  State and local historic preservation laws may also pertain to proposed dam removal projects.  In most cases, state and local historic preservation laws parallel the federal law, and compliance with all levels of jurisdiction can be achieved in a single process.

The report also examines opportunities for historic preservation and environmental interests to participate in productive discussions about whether a proposed dam removal could adversely affect historic resources and, if so, work together to identify methods for avoiding, minimizing or mitigating the adverse effects of the dam removal project. 

Finally, this report provides case studies of actual dam removal projects that have addressed historic issues (see Appendix A), and an overview of federal, state, and tribal historic preservation laws (see Appendix B).  Whether you are a dam owner, community member, state or federal agency, historical society, an advocate for river restoration and/or historic preservation, this report provides you with important information about reconciling the dual objectives of dam removal and historic preservation and making the often difficult choices between compelling cases to restore rivers or retain historic value.