In March of 1973, thirty-three impassioned river enthusiasts met in Denver, Colorado. Though they came from different parts of the U.S., they shared a deep concern about the damming, diverting, and dredging of America’s free-flowing rivers, and a desire to do something about it. Although the environmental movement was in full swing at the time, much of the attention and conservation action was directed toward public lands, and not rivers. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act had been in place for five years, but it was only protecting eight rivers, and dams were being built at an alarming pace. Intent on getting more free-flowing rivers protected under the Act but knowing that many of the logical candidates for designation were slated for damming, the conservationists, paddlers, outfitters, and anglers in that Denver meeting joined together to form American Rivers Conservation Council. With just a few thousand dollars of pooled contributions and a one-room office in Washington, DC, the organization, which ultimately changed its name to American Rivers, doggedly pursued its mission to designate new Wild and Scenic Rivers and halt the construction of dams. Within only five years, the number of rivers protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act grew from eight to 43, and that was just the beginning.
American Rivers has grown to become one of the most influential river conservation organization in the U.S. and the national voice for more than three million miles of rivers.
With a 75-person staff and funding from grants and donations, American Rivers protects wild rivers, restore damaged rivers, and conserve clean water for people and nature. The organization advances this expanded mission through projects, partnership, capacity building, and advocacy related to clean water and river protection and restoration. True to its origins, American Rivers has remained at the forefront of the U.S. dam removal movement with effort centered around the removal of unsafe and deficient dams.
If there was a watershed moment in that movement, it was the 1999 removal of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River, an event in which American Rivers was deeply involved. The Kennebec flows more than 150 miles from west-central Maine to the Atlantic Ocean and provided critical habitat for alewife, Atlantic salmon, American shad, and many other migratory fish species. But after the 25-foot-tall Edwards Dam was constructed in 1837 to serve energy and navigation needs, migratory fish populations dwindled, and water quality declined.
By the mid-1990s, as the dam’s use and safety had diminished and its licensing was coming up for renewal, American Rivers joined forces with Trout Unlimited, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, and the Natural Resources Council of Maine to form the “Kennebec Coalition” and lobby for the liberation of the Kennebec. At the time, removal of a hydropower dam was considered a radical idea, but the Coalition produced a 7,000-page report that forever that changed that perception. The report, which documented the environmental impacts of the dam and the economic importance of a restored fishery, convinced the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency with the authority to renew the dam’s license, that the benefits of removing the dam outweighed the benefits of continuing its operation.
Then U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt (2nd from L) at the opening ceremony for the Edwards Dam removal, when the cofferdam holding back the water was initially breached. ©Kennebec Coalition
The removal of the Edwards Dam reconnected 17 miles of the Kennebec River with the ocean for the first time in over 160 years and sparked the resurgence of migratory fish populations and the recreational economy associated with a healthier river. It also obliterated one of the greatest barriers to dam removal–the perception of it as an outlandish concept–by demonstrating its viability as a sound alternative for obsolete dams, or those with significant ecological impacts.
Edwards Dam removal. ©Kennebec Coalition
Since then, American Rivers has worked directly on more than 200 dam removal projects nationwide and supported hundreds more by providing training and assistance to build the capacity of communities, nonprofit organizations, and state agencies to implement dam removal projects.
A restored stream at the site of a former impoundment. ©American Rivers
Not even a pandemic could stop the organization’s momentum. In 2020, American Rivers still managed to remove dams and protect 878 miles of rivers. The removal of a 15-foot-high, 70-foot-long concrete dam on the South Branch of the Gale River in in New Hampshire is a telling example of both the organization’s determination and its reliance on partnership. Constructed in the 1950s as part of a water supply system, the dam was no longer in use and had become a maintenance burden. Enter American Rivers and its partners: the Littleton Water and Light Department, which owned the dam, representatives from the New Hampshire Departments of Fish and Game and Environmental Services, the U.S. Forest and Fish and Wildlife Services, and The Nature Conservancy. In September 2019, they began collaborating on the dam removal and river restoration design. By October of 2020, the dam was gone. According to Amy Singler, who directs and manages American Rivers’ river restoration projects in New England, that kind of success was possible largely because of the integrated, cohesive team behind it.
The Gale River, before (L) and after (R) dam removal. ©American Rivers
“There were certainly more hoops to jump through, like figuring out to how to get permits signed when nobody is in the office,” said Singler, but having a collaborative, action-oriented project team made those hurdles easier to overcome. “Every time something needed to be done,” said Singler, “somebody was stepping up to do the work and the project was complete in just over a year.”
The collaborative project team at the site of the Gale River dam removal. ©American Rivers
The project’s location in the White Mountain National Forest, public lands in which Singler spent many childhood vacations, made this project deeply rewarding for Singler. “To be able to restore that river for everybody was exciting,” she said. Adding nine miles to 20-mile network of connected river also made Singler hopeful for the future. “Resilient river networks are so important to healthy populations of fish and wildlife,” she said, “particularly as we see the higher flows and lower lows [associated with climate change].”
The Gale River, during (L) and after (R) dam removal. ©American Rivers
One of the most rewarding aspects of dam removal, particularly in contrast with other ecological restoration techniques, is the speed with which results can be seen. “We start to see improvements in river function almost immediately,” said Singler. “I know people who have seen fish move up through a breach [created during a dam removal] as soon as the machines stopped.”
Dam removal has another advantage over many other interventions. “When done right, you only have to do it once,” said Singler.
While there’s no seminal piece of literature comparing the speed and efficiency of dam removal with other tools in the ecological restoration toolbox, Singler sees evidence in the reactions of people she takes to project sites. “Just last week I was at a dam removal site from last fall,” she said, “and the person I was with said, ‘So, where was the dam? This just looks like a river.”
When done right, you only have to do it once.
Singler is careful to point out, however, that American Rivers’ dam removal and river restoration work aims to restore all of the processes that come with flowing water, not just the movement of species up and downstream. Other improvements, such as the recolonization of viable habitat created from newly exposed cobble beds, or deep, cool water pools, can take months or even years.
American Rivers also produces and maintains resources to inform and assist dam removal and river restoration efforts. This includes the annual, widely publicized “America’s Most Endangered Rivers List,” which is generated through nominations from groups and individuals nationwide. The list is a powerful call to action, and in past years, many of these calls have been answered. One year after the Gila River was named #1 on the 2019 list, for example, it was saved from a proposed diversion and legislation was introduced to protect 450 miles of the river as Wild and Scenic.
Partners explore a dam removal site ©American Rivers
Topping the 2021 list is the lower Snake River in eastern Washington, where four federal dams built between 1955 and 1975 caused a dramatic decline of wild salmon and steelhead and drove some populations to extinction. American Rivers is echoing calls by Native American tribes across the Northwest and advocating for the removal of the four dams on the lower Snake, the creation of a comprehensive salmon recovery plan, and federal investment in renewable energy and transportation infrastructure to replace power, irrigation, and transport services previously provided by the dams. Such action would not only benefit the regional ecology and the economy, but also honor treaties and commitments to Indigenous people of the Columbia-Snake River Basin whose lives and cultures are inextricably linked to salmon.
“Over the course of this country’s history, our built infrastructure has disproportionately impacted certain communities,” said Singler. “As part of our work, we are trying to see what part we can play in addressing environmental injustice.”
Over the course of this country’s history, our built infrastructure has disproportionately impacted certain communities.
American Rivers maintains a running inventory of all dam removal projects implemented in the U.S. since 1912. As of the date of this publication, they total 1797, with most occurring in the last two decades. While the number of U.S. dam removal projects continues to increase, they are not without challenges.
According to Singler, one of the biggest challenges has to do with communication. “Helping people who have come to know and love a certain landscape understand the potential for river restoration and the change that happens through the process of dam removal is always a challenge,” she said.
Amy Singler speaking to the media at the 20th anniversary of the Edwards Dam removal ©American Rivers
This challenge, according to Singler, is not limited to community members. “Even scientists and engineers don’t want to see the change sometimes,” she admits. Singler senses that in this case, reluctance has less to do with a beloved landscape and more to do with the limitations of certain regulations—regulations that often lag behind our current understanding of changing natural systems and dynamic environmental processes.
“Environmental regulations were based on conservation and protection measures which reference the way something has been or is, and not what it could be.” A dam removal may, for example, shift a five-acre open water impoundment into a one-acre river. From a regulatory standpoint, explains Singler, that can be viewed as a four-acre loss, regardless of how enhanced the river ecosystem becomes.
Environmental regulations were based on conservation and protection measures which reference the way something has been or is, and not what it could be.
One of the most powerful tools in communicating the benefits of dam removal to any audience, according to Singler, is the continually growing body of case studies.
“When a dam removal is done well,” said Singler, “we’ll often have a dam owner in an adjacent community say, ‘I also have a dam safety issue… can you help?’”
Singler expects that as dam removal projects become more common, and more people are able to see the benefits and amenities they bring, there will be a growing contagion of support from the public and among the scientific, engineering, and regulatory communities.
American Rivers and partners removed the Bloede Dam from Maryland's Patpasco River. Unused since the late 1920s, the dam was a public safety concern and an obstacle to fish passage. ©American Rivers
Another challenge to dam removal, according to Singler, is the public misperception that all dams are currently safe and serving an active purpose.
“Of the 90,000 (or upwards of two million, depending on how you count them) dams in the U.S.,” she said, “the vast majority are not serving the purpose for which they were built.”
Only 3% of America’s dams are currently a source of hydroelectric energy. To make matters worse, they are aging. By 2030, seven out of 10 dams will be more than 50 years old, and thus not built to current standards. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gives dams a grade of “D”
“The Edenville and Sanford Dam failures in Michigan are clear examples that it is easy to forget about dams,” said Singler, “and that dam failure is not a problem until it is a problem.”
Getting the public and policymakers to understand the potential uplift–to ecology, economy, and society–of dam removal and river protection and restoration, is where American Rivers’ outreach and advocacy come in. With its nationwide network of members, supporters, and volunteers, the organization has a strong voice. So far, that voice has helped increase the number of rivers protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act from the original eight to 226, and it has influenced local and federal policy to make removing dams easier, more efficient and more cost effective.
Working in partnership with several other organizations, American Rivers helped craft the Twenty-First Century Dams Act, bipartisan legislation in July that would provide historic funding to remove dams that are no longer safe or necessary while enhancing the safety, resilience and power generating capacity of America’s dams. American Rivers and its partners have also worked hard to ensure that dams are regarded as a critical part of infrastructure and are included in the new bipartisan infrastructure package that was approved by the Senate in August.
According to Singler, the influx of funding that would come from the passing of the Twenty-First Century Dams Act would not only enable more dams to be removed, but to accelerate their removal by streamlining projects that would otherwise need to be tackled by phases.
“We often have to take projects one piece at a time,” she explained, with each phase of a project requiring its own, separate fundraising and implementation effort. A larger pot of funds would allow more projects to move forward more quickly. But that is not the only win that would result from the landmark legislation, according to Singler. “We could ultimately have safer dams, more resilient waterways, improved fisheries and recreation, and of course, jobs.” The legislation is projected to restore 10,000 miles of rivers while also supporting more than 450,000 jobs.
But when it comes to the work of American Rivers, funding is only part of the equation. “None of our work happens without partnerships,” said Singler.
A sign from the 20th anniversary of the Edwards Dam Removal. ©American Rivers
What began as a group of 33 individuals committed to doing something to save and protect America’s rivers has grown into a nationwide network of 355,000 people. In the process, those people have partnered together to restore and protect more than 150,000 miles of river. But their work is nowhere near done.
“There is so much to do,” said Singler. “Within the Restoration Program, we are not just thinking about how to get the next project done, but how to get the next 100 projects done.”
*To learn how you can support or get involved in the work of American Rivers, visit americanrivers.org