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The Effects of Keeping and Removing Dams

Glenn MacGrady

Staff member
Oct 24, 2012
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The linked article is a fairly thorough discussion of the effects of dams on river environments, and the efforts to and effects of removing them.


"To river lovers, Glen Canyon Dam is the Death Star and Voldemort combined."

"Glen Canyon Dam has been in the crosshairs of river lovers for 50 years, inspiring periodic dreams of removal and the occasional short-lived public debate when parts of Glen Canyon emerge from Lake Powell during droughts."

"Massive dam projects like these make headlines, but they also obscure key facts about rivers and dams. For every large federal dam like Glen Canyon or Lower Granite, there are thousands of minor ones: nearly 80,000 small dams restrict the rivers of the U.S. and while lawsuits about the Snake River dams drag into their third decade, river lovers have been quietly clearing smaller clogs."

"The European Union's biodiversity strategy aims to free up 25,000 km of rivers before 2030. This includes removing unnecessary barriers such as dams, with positive results seen in Spain and Estonia."

"Randzio and her Montpelier-based nonprofit have long hoped to take out the Bailey Dam and three others in and around the capital to restore the Winooski [River] and its tributaries [in Vermont] to something closer to their natural state. That would foster a cleaner, healthier ecosystem for fish and wildlife and new recreational opportunities such as boating.

"The July flood underscored another crucial benefit to removing derelict dams: Taking them out can actually prevent or minimize future flooding, she said."

Lake Powell is the big boondogle.
But the dams on the upper Columbia and the lower Snake Rivers have the salmon protection of the ESA going for them. They will probably come out sooner.
So many obsolete dams could be removed. They're often private business-owned and the business doesn't want to spend the money. In New England, this would be the low-hanging fruit, and would eliminate so many portages. Not to mention fish spawning.

While I love the idea of the AuSable River going back to its natural state, and I really want that to happen, I do also feel for those who live and make their living along the 6 ponds. Our cabin is several miles upstream of the first dam, so the draining of the reservoirs wouldn’t affect us too much. But those along the shores of the various ponds would be left with large areas of mudflats, I suppose. Probably quite fertile, but it would take a while for things to start looking natural again - plus they currently own waterfront property.

Overall, it seems like the cost of upkeep into infinity just isn’t worth it, and this river isn’t in a particularly financially thriving area (and an awful lot of it is in the Huron National Forest), so who ends up paying to keep them, just to keep them? Getting rid of them would certainly be better for the ecosystem.

I’m certainly glad they are looking long and hard at this decision. I don’t quite understand the idea of selling the dams - while that would be best for Consumer’s Power, I don’t see what a potential buyer might get out of it. Other than development, creating a swath of inaccessible river on both sides? Perhaps Consumer’s is just throwing it out there, to see if they get any bites.

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JCH Ski,
It would not take long for the flat around the reservoir to revegetate. The hydrology will be changed by lowering the water table and the mud flats will go away. We see this over and over how fast plant succession takes place. I had a 30 year career in mine reclamation.

I paddled the AuSable River in 1962 at the age of 12 for one day. I thought it was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen.
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I volunteer at the local nature center a mile from my house. It’s called River Bend Nature Center and is located on a bend in the local river. It has a fleet of 18 canoes and about 30 kayaks for rent. In a typical rental season April thru October boat rentals generate up to about $20,000. During the pandemic the rental income soared to about $50,000/season.

A mile down river is a dam which has been there since 1848, having been rebuilt or repaired about every 50 years. The dam was last rebuilt in 1975, so it is due again. The county (dam owner) has been ordered to: remove or rebuild it in the next year or so.

If the dam goes the nature center can rename itself Creek Bend. I have lived here long enough to remember a very small watercourse which did not lend itself to boating Prior to the last rebuild. Several groups in Wisconsin pride themselves on restoring rivers to their natural flow and brag that Wisconsin is a national leader in rem dams. The county would have to pay at least several million $$ to replace the dam or let the Army Corp of Engineers completely remove it at no cost to the county.

What do you think the county board will vote to do?
"The benefits of low-cost hydropower, irrigation and transportation on the Lower Snake River and the survival of salmon at risk of extinction are at stake."

I’ve recently been reading comments on a Facebook page committed to keeping the dams on the AuSable, in lower Michigan. Homeowners and community members who are worried about their homes, wells, livelihoods, etc. It‘s a group of worried, upset people, for good reason.

I’m trying to get a picture of both sides of the issue. While I sympathize with them, I do see that some people are on the “keep them no matter what” side, and there are suggestions that the taxpayers pick up the tab for keeping them (in perpetuity, I suppose), or new wells and compensation for lost property values for those who live on the ponds. I can see their point about the wells and property values, but I don’t seem to be able to comprehend keeping the dams and maintaining them, and upgrading them periodically forever, just to keep them. The cost of that, if the dams don’t produce enough energy to offset it, will be exorbitant.

The argument always comes back to “it’s all about money and greed on the part of the power company”. But it’s a power company. Their job is to produce power, and hopefully keep their rates down for their customers (but profits up for the shareholders, at the same time). So how does decommissioning the dams and avoiding future upgrade and maintenance costs actually indicate greed? How is keeping the dams for the sole sake of keeping them, and passing the cost on to the customers and/or taxpayers, not about the money, just on the other side?

There are also concerns about lampreys and other invasive species, which apparently have already made it upstream to the first dam. The environmental impacts of this decision are more important to me, in the end. But it’s one of those situations where not everyone can win, I’m afraid. Will it be the environment? Will it be the local population? Will it be Consumers Energy?
It is about money, but not about ill will. It costs a fortune to remove a dam, and much less to leave it there to decay. In steps the government, who doesn't want to see the destruction when a dam breaks, imposes requirements to either fix it or remove it. Folks who have waterfront on the artificial lake created by the dam have the most to lose. Sometimes a dam owner will offer it to the waterfront residents, but it's rare thing for them to accept. Because of money.
More controversy from all over the country, pro and con, about removing dams and who is going to pay for the consequences.





Even construction of small dams can be difficult or problematic. We have had several small dams removed in the State (and pretty much every dam other than the major drinking water reservoir dams are small), but the ones that have been removed have been the low-hanging fruit dams that did not affect many upstream landowners or wells or recreational use or have any effects other than positive habitat and flood resiliency improvements. But a couple of the most recent proposals have been controversial due to potential impact on shallow dug wells and the loss of waterfront property where owners dock their boats. And thanks to RI's status as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, there is plenty of legacy contamination tied up in the sediments behind the dams that will need to be properly managed for any removal. Even removal of small dams under these circumstances can be expensive, and if it weren't for federal dollars they probably wouldn't happen at all.

One positive impact in RI from dam removal has been the increase in whitewater opportunities in the state.
Everyone interested in hydrology and the effect of dams on rivers should pay attention to the Klamath River, CA/OR this year. Four dams are coming out in the headwaters which should help the already robust salmon and steelhead fishery.
"In an Instagram post shared by Rowen White (@rowenwhite), photos of the Klamath River — which runs for over 250 miles from Oregon’s high desert to the Pacific Ocean in northern California — before and after one of four dams was removed earlier this year were met with a wave of emotion."

thanks Glenn. I have done three trips on the Klamath River, two in rafts and last June in a drift boat.
It is some wild country with lots of wildlife encounters.