69 Dams Removed in 2020

Nothing restores a river like removing a dam.

By Jessie Thomas-Blate | February 18, 2021
Middle Fork Nooksack Dam
Middle Fork Nooksack Dam

Despite the challenges of working through a pandemic, river restoration practitioners continued to pursue dam removal projects in 2020 to revitalize local economies and communities and reconnect 624 upstream river miles for fish, wildlife and river health. Sixty-nine dams were removed in 2020 across 23 states, including: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

A total of 1,797 dams have been removed in the U.S. since 1912. The states with the most dam removals in 2020 were Ohio (11), Massachusetts (6) and New York (6).

Local partners, engineers and construction crews worked under extraordinary circumstances to complete these projects, delivering a wide range of benefits to their rivers and communities. For example, on the Middle Fork Nooksack River near Bellingham, Washington, removing a water diversion dam and installing a new water intake opened 16 miles of habitat for salmon, restored cultural resources, and ensured a sustainable supply of clean water for the city. The project, an effort of American Rivers, the Nooksack Indian Tribe, Lummi Nation, City of Bellingham, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and others demonstrates the power of public-private partnership and innovative solutions to infrastructure challenges.

More than 90,000 dams block rivers in the U.S. Dams harm fish and wildlife habitat and ecosystem health and can pose safety risks to communities. The failure of Michigan’s Edenville Dam in May 2020 was the latest high profile example of the threat aging, outdated dams pose to public safety. A recent UN report highlighted the growing risk of aging water infrastructure.

American Rivers’ report, Rivers as Economic Engines, outlines how investing in water infrastructure and river restoration creates jobs and benefits the economy. For example, according to a study by the University of North Carolina, the ecological restoration sector directly employs approximately 126,000 workers nationally, and supports another 100,000 jobs indirectly, contributing a combined $25 billion to the economy annually.

On a much larger scale than the projects featured on the 2020 list, Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID) recently shared a vision for infrastructure investments in the Pacific Northwest that includes removal of four dams on the lower Snake River, which would be the biggest river restoration effort in history. While details need to be addressed before legislation can be enacted, Congressman Simpson’s proposal illustrates how river restoration can be part of transformational solutions that include clean energy, agriculture, job creation and economic revitalization.  

Learn more about this year’s dam removal projects:

Some other interesting projects from around the country in 2020 include:

NORTHEAST: South Branch Gale River Dam, South Branch Gale River, New Hampshire

The South Branch of the Gale River was blocked by a 21-foot high concrete and earthen dam in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, in White Mountain National Forest. The dam was a complete barrier for fish and disrupted natural riverine processes. The Littleton Water and Light Department (LWLD) constructed the dam and associated infrastructure in 1955 for water supply; however, it was no longer in use and had become a maintenance burden. In keeping with the original Special Use Permit from the Forest Service, the dam had to be removed if it was not in use. Removal of the dam was a priority as measured under several river connectivity prioritization methodologies and will restore connectivity to approximately 15 miles of river above the dam and approximately 21 miles of river downstream of the dam. Working together on this project, the partners included the LWLD, American Rivers, New Hampshire Department of Ecological Resources, New Hampshire Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the U.S. Forest Service.

SOUTHEAST: Burson Lake Dam, Reedy Creek, South Carolina

This project, led by staff at the Francis Marion-Sumter National Forest, removed a dam that had created a recreation lake because the spillway was undermined. This earthen dam was built in 1990, and its spillway was damaged by spring 2020 rain events. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) decided to remove the dam due to increased risk of failure during 2020 hurricane season (before scheduled repairs could be completed). USFS repurposed part of funds intended for culvert replacement by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to pay for dam removal. A USFWS restoration team did the construction. USFS intends to use this as a demonstration site to show dam owners in the Piedmont/foothills what a restored site looks like. This project restored the aquatic community and potential rare species habitat for Bartram’s bass, removed a safety hazard, eliminated ongoing maintenance costs to taxpayers, and promoted greater climate change resilience.

MIDWEST: Elkhart River Dam, Elkhart River, Indiana

The Elkhart River Dam, an approximately 8-foot-tall low-head dam, was built around 1890 to increase the elevation of the river to divert water into raceways that were used to power industry in downtown Elkhart, Indiana. Over time as development occurred, these raceways filled and the dam no longer served a purpose. The dam gave rise to the name of Waterfall Drive, the street located adjacent to the former dam. The former dam was located approximately one-half mile upstream of the Elkhart River’s confluence with the St. Joseph River. With the Elkhart River being the largest tributary of the St. Joseph River, this dam served as a significant barrier to fish migrating out of the St. Joseph River. The dam’s removal reconnected 40 miles of upstream habitat, allowed for the recolonization of 16 species of fish in the Elkhart River and population integration for approximately 50 fish species, including endangered or threatened species (e.g., greater redhorse, longnose dace, and northern brook lamprey).

NORTHERN ROCKIES: Rattlesnake Creek Dam, Rattlesnake Creek, Montana

This dam removal reestablished the connection between the Rattlesnake Wilderness at the headwaters and the Clark Fork River for the first time in more than 100 years. Ultimately, all manmade structures will be removed, 1,000 feet of stream channel will be restored, and 5 acres of wetland and floodplain will be created. A public-private partnership was formed to accomplish this project between the City of Missoula, Missoula Water, Trout Unlimited, the Watershed Education Network, and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

NORTHWEST: Pilchuck River Diversion Dam, Pilchuck River, Washington

The Tulalip Tribes worked with the City of Snohomish and many project funders to completely remove two adjacent dams on the Pilchuck River in Washington State primarily to provide unimpeded threatened and endangered species fish passage to over 36 miles of pristine upstream habitat for the benefit of Chinook, coho, chum, and pink salmon, steelhead trout, bull trout, cutthroat trout, and a variety of other aquatic species. The project is expected to increase fish stocks, increase safety, reduce risk from potential dam failure, and increase recreational opportunities.

Dam Removal

30 responses to “69 Dams Removed in 2020”

  • Joyce Gilchriest says:

    And now they are going to remove 4 dams on the Snake River. SERIOIUSLY?? Much of the area serviced by these dams is the high desert and without those dams it will INDEED be a desert again. Farming, ranching, and so much more depends on those dams! Destroy all these dams and people will find out what drought really means. Sometimes there will be floods and water wasted and land destroyed, sometimes there just will be no water at all. I just cannot believe the stupidity of all this. Why do we THE PEOPLE who are the beneficiaries of these dams have no say in this???

  • Frank says:

    Amazed at the increase in pace and progress at the removal of dams and weirs which no longer serve a purpose (hydro, flood control, drinking/irrigation) for the benefit of fish populations. Would be great to see updates into the years as to how each of these removals affect specific fish stocks. In Europe we have an even larger issue with obsolete structures built over hundreds of years impacting our fisheries (1 man-made dam/weir for every mile of river). I can understand the frustration of people in the US who lament at the loss of historic structures and more should be done to commemorate these by leaving part of structures in place or placing commemorative placards. Luckily in Europe we’ve so many historic structures that people barely even notice them but too many other barriers to removal persist. Hopefully we can catch up with the US as our freshwater and estuarine habitats desperately need action. The US is making way for the rest of the world in this area and should be proud as a nation.

  • Karen M. Bushy says:

    An amazing display of Grand Generalities, and such a shame. We’re the VICTIMS of a proposed dam removal, and for NO good reason. There are fish above the dam, the Mill Pond creates a stunning wild animal habitat and we have a beautiful nature center there for education manned by both volunteers and forest rangers. The little creek it is on is a ‘seasonal flow’ creek, and it is on the National Register of Historic Places because it is part of a WORKING Grist Mill. It is a low head, low flow dam, and we have NEVER had a call for service there for either police, fire or paramedics. All of your sweeping generalities may seem important, but they do NOT apply in every situation. To say every dam is so terrible is just wrong.

  • jAY lEO bALDWIN says:

    As Jefferson said about large cities at that time, comparing it to dams at this time: these relics add so much to the well being of society–as sores do to the human body!! The land mark book “Dams” states that he who dams the water is doomed-=either from salting up the irrigated soil or from putrification of water quality. Natural lakes purify water like a settling bowl; making it oligotrophic or oxygen rich for quality fisheries. Dams with hydropower tap deep water that is putrid, eutrophic and green moss and goosh destroy spawning beds down river. All Dams are destructive and should be removed. Solar, and wind power are so much cleaner.

  • Frank says:

    We don’t have much hydro in the states. I know in canada a larger percentage of the grid is powered from Niagara Falls. Most homes are powered by natural gas solar and wind here.

  • DM says:

    Most of the ones being removed are not hydropower dams. Many of the hydropower dams being removed are extremely old and the power generated is not worth the expense of dam and facility maintenance. Thinking all dams are the same is seriously naive.

  • DM says:

    Agree with the Snake river comment but you are incorrect about man not being able to improve the planet. Man is a keystone species and can positively impact the environment, implementing biodiversity and helping ecosystem resiliency. Typically this is not the case but it is possible and it is important to think this way, otherwise there is no hope. Look up “permaculture” for more info.

  • DM says:

    There is a difference between useful dams and crumbling obsolete dams that cost tax-payer money to maintain but offer zero benefits. Not all dams are the same.

  • Sonia Koetting says:

    Annie, did you read any of the above? Progress can’t happen if we all stick to our knee-jerk idea of a situation. This is nuanced, and yes, the little power being lost along the way is begin replaced. Benefits are so much greater. If it must be about the money for you, indeed, it will also be financially wise to restore natural systems as we’re logically able. Have a little faith.

  • Christian Rolfson says:

    You should really try to go educate yourself rather than grossly generalize something that is a critical environmental issue throughout river systems across the US. Yes, there are dams that provide significant electric output and water in arid areas and these dams are not being removed. That’s the truth until we can replace the huge electrical production and water reserves with renewable energy that does not have the same environmental degradation that dams inflict. This is the ultimate goal, but we cannot do this right now. Millions would be left without drinking water, cities wouldn’t have enough electricity, and cropland in the SW US would dry up. We are developing alternate solutions to this, but we aren’t there yet. What you obviously are completely ignorant to is the large amount of obsolete and outdated dams that still block river ways all across the country, for little to no economic benefit and in need of over $45 billion in repairs and upgrades in order to get anything out of them. They are simply sitting there, blocking rivers, restricting nutrient transport, causing wild salmon and freshwater fish populations to plummet while causing potentially hazardous conditions for the people that live in and around these systems. These need to be removed, there is no purpose for them to be present anymore. This is what organizations like American Rivers are vouching for and are doing so successfully. If you spent 10 minutes remotely researching this, you’d figure out you’re full of shit.

  • Annie Gaddis says:

    Are you willing to pay for the new electricity going to those people’s homes? Oh that’s right, we ARE paying for them!

  • Annie Gaddis says:

    Were any of these being used for electricity (hydro) for people’s homes?

  • Eritz Campos Aretxaga says:

    Totally agree! Thanks Kevin.

  • Nathan Archibald says:

    What a joke, we need dams, they help us, we’re regressing as a society when we do this. Why would people destroy what we have built. Literally destroying historic structures and some have been around for over 100 years. I just don’t understand. We’re literally destroying historic structures, seriously. What did the dams ever do to you?

  • New Jack says:

    Without dams s-holes like Los Angeles would not survive. San Francisco gets all of it’s fresh water from a damn. You are educated idiots.

  • Andy Ford says:

    Great statement Kevin. Thanks.

  • Andy Ford says:

    Well said Geoffrey and thanks.

  • Cotton says:

    The best damn news in a long time.

  • Missy Fisher says:

    I know a dam was removed from the Cuyahoga Valley NP’s Cuyahoga River, where i grew up near Brecksville. My family now can kayak down it. I love having the dam gone.

  • Geoffrey M Goll says:

    The vast majority of dam removals that have occurred do not provide drinking water storage, flood control, and are too small to provide any meaningful hydroelectric power generation. Take a closer look at each of those removed. And in one case, while the hydroelectric power was halted for the dam removal, the dam served less than 150 homes, and the renewable power equivalent was replaced with solar power constructed atop of existing infrastructure.

  • Rusty Crawford says:

    Just piss away flood control, drinking water retention and how about the ultimate in clean energy production. The river systems can provide clean electric power over and over as it drops in elevation.
    The dams and locks on the Columbia river contribute in huge reduction in fossil fuel consumption in moving goods eastward. Be very careful of what you wish for.

  • Daniel Rhodes says:

    You’re absolutely correct. Tell that to those who only care about money.

  • Kevin Brown says:

    When the lower four dams on the snake river are removed, and they will be removed, you will see such a transformation as the river once again flows wild and free. As this sinks in to people actually witnessing it with their own eyes, the other dams killing the snake river will also be removed. This is the greatest good for the planet restoring its to its original glory. Leave nature alone, it is perfect. Millions of years of evolution have seen to that. Man cannot improve on it, only destroy it.

  • Mike NZ says:

    Great work

  • Jeanadele says:

    I live in the beautiful Columbia Gorge, and I’m so happy to see our rivers and streams being restored.

  • Mohammad says:

    Hope you doing well. A question;
    In dam removal project what kind of dams take into account? I mean does it include check dam which already constructed aim to trapping sediment and reducing flood peak or anything else?

  • Ron Drees says:

    What happened in Ohio? Tell me about dam removals there.

  • Rick Meinke says:

    Removal of the federal government run Atkinson Dam on Winters Run in Harford County Md. This dam has been silted in for many years and a 1/2″ of rain or more will send sediment down the local trout stream. Would like to see it on the removal list.

  • Jim Bauersfeld DVM says:

    Must continue to restore to natural state and function the rivers and streams up stream of dam removal sites.

  • Elish says:

    Reading about dam removal is so satisfying .. everything being done is so positive, I just wish more dams could be removed at a faster pace..

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