American Rivers releases “Free Rivers: The State of Dam Removal in the U.S.”

February 22, 2022

57 dams removed in 2021 

25 “dam removals to watch” for 2022 and beyond 

February 22, 2022 

Contact: Amy Souers Kober, 503-708-1145 

Removing dams has tremendous benefits for river health, public safety and climate resilience, according to Free Rivers: The State of Dam Removal in the U.S. released today by American Rivers. 57 dams in 22 states were removed in 2021, reconnecting more than 2,131 miles of rivers. In addition, American Rivers is highlighting 25 dam removals to watch for 2022 and beyond. 

“We had a good year in river restoration in 2021, but there is a growing urgency to accelerate our efforts to improve river health and resilience.” said Tom Kiernan, President and CEO of American Rivers. “The related crises of climate change, racial injustice, and biodiversity loss are further degrading our rivers and require us to accelerate river restoration through dam removals nationwide.” 

“Congress, the administration, and the river restoration community need to significantly accelerate dam removal efforts nationwide if we are to prevent further declines in river health, prevent extinction of fish and wildlife, enhance communities, and safeguard the public from failing dams,” Kiernan added. 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law late last year is an important step, committing $2.4 billion for the removal, retrofit and rehabilitation of dams. American Rivers urged Congress to includethe 21st Century Dams Act, a bill introduced in 2021, in the upcoming Water Resources Development Act. This will provide programmatic authority and funding authorization for the removal of dams with willing owners, funding to increase capacity of state dam safety programs and resources to support dam retrofits to improve hydropower productivity. 

Healthy, free-flowing rivers are essential to life, yet hundreds of thousands of dams block rivers across the U.S. Dams turn rivers into stagnant reservoirs that release methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. While many dams serve useful purposes and should remain in place, many no longer provide any benefits and are causing more harm than good.  

Outdated, obsolete dams threaten public safety: 85 percent of the nation’s dams are more than 50 years old, which is the average life expectancy of a dam. Aging dams are at increased risk of failure, particularly during increasingly severe storms and flooding fueled by climate change. Since 2015, at least 87 dams have failed in South Carolina during storms and hurricanes.   

Dam removal is a proven tool to restore river health, improve public safety, revitalize fish and wildlife populations, safeguard cultural values and reconnect communities to their rivers. River restoration also benefits the economy — every $1 million invested in restoring watersheds generates 16 jobs and up to $2.5 million for the economy. 

As part of its leadership in river restoration, American Rivers tracks dam removal trends and maintains a national dam removal database. A total of 1,951 dams have been removed in the U.S. since 1912. 

In 2021, the states leading in dam removal were: 

  • Vermont, Pennsylvania and Oregon (7 removals each) 
  • New Jersey (6 removals) 
  • Wisconsin (4 removals) 

Successes from 2021 include:  

  • Public safety (Hammel Woods Dam on DuPage River, Illinois)— This low-head dam was removed by the Will County Forest Preserve District because three people had drowned at the dam in recent years. This project is complemented in the broader watershed by the neighboring Forest Preserves of Cook County who have been working to remove unsafe and ecologically harmful dams on the Des Plaines and North Branch Chicago River (see our “projects to watch” list for more information). 
  • Access and recreation: (Hyde Dam on White River, Vermont)— This project involved the removal of a former mill dam from a site that had a dam as early as the 1700s. Upon completion of the dam removal project, partners will develop the historic site as a public access area for angling, swimming and boating. This project builds upon the momentum of the Vermont Dams Task Force as one of seven dam removals for Vermont in 2021. 
  • Fish and wildlife habitat (Ward Mill Dam on Watauga River, North Carolina)— Built in 1890, this hydropower dam ranked first in the North Carolina barrier assessment tool to increase aquatic connectivity. American Rivers led this project that improved habitat for resident fish and wildlife like the Eastern hellbender (the largest salamander in the U.S.) in partnership with MountainTrue, Blue Ridge Resource Conservation and Development and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

American Rivers also released a list of 25 dam removal projects to watch for 2022 and future years. 

“There are thousands of dams that need to come down in the U.S., and there are opportunities for river restoration at every size and scale,” said Kiernan. 

The “projects to watch” list is not exhaustive. It is meant to illustrate examples and highlight opportunities. The projects range from small dams with willing owners where river restoration will deliver important local benefits, to bigger dam removal efforts that are vital to saving species from extinction and addressing longstanding injustices across entire regions.   

Highlights include removal of Walton’s Mill Dam on Maine’s Temple Stream, a tributary of the Kennebec River, which will begin this year. Dam removal will restore more than 52 miles of important habitat for wild Atlantic salmon and other native fish. The project is part of a broader effort over the past several decades to restore endangered Atlantic salmon and other sea-run fish to the Kennebec River, an effort ignited by the successful removal of Edwards Dam in 1999.  

The list also spotlights critical ongoing dam removal efforts, including four federal dams on the Pacific Northwest’s lower Snake River which are driving salmon runs toward extinction. The 573 tribes of the National Congress of American Indians have called for the removal of these four dams to address injustice and recover salmon. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Washington Governor Jay Inslee are spearheading an effort examining how to replace the services the dams provide. 

About American Rivers 

American Rivers believes a future of clean water and healthy rivers for everyone, everywhere is essential. Since 1973, we have protected wild rivers, restored damaged rivers and conserved clean water for people and nature. With headquarters in Washington, D.C., and 300,000 supporters, members and volunteers across the country, we are the most trusted and influential river conservation organization in the United States, delivering solutions for a better future. Because life needs rivers.