Dam Removal a Good Idea for Several Reasons

Morgantown Dominion Post
26 August 2013

MANY YEARS AGO, I sat in a seminar given by a fellow faculty member, Dr. Steve Hollenhorst, in the Division of Forestry and Natural Resources.

Steve taught in the Recreation program and he was an exceptional professor. When he mentioned that we would soon see many dams removed in this country, I perked up. I didn’t believe it, but I listened. Turns out that Steve was far more astute in his assessment of that situation than I was.

Obviously, dams can do good things for society, and there are thousands of them across the country and around the world. Consider our own Cheat Lake dam. It provides a beautiful setting for homes, and thousands of boaters and fishermen enjoy the benefits as well. And we can’t forget the original purpose: It creates power.

Dams are built for various reasons: Flood control, power, water supplies, recreation and others. Many were built in the early 1900s, and many have outlived their usefulness. There are problems. One major problem with dams along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts is that they block fish spawning runs. For example, in both the Northwest and Northeast, salmon populations have plummeted because of dams. As a result, many dams in those regions are gone.

Another problem with old dams is, sediments accumulate behind them. We see that in Cheat Lake, and it is a major problem with many old dams. They fill with debris and sediment and eventually their original purpose is lost.

Safety issues can also be a problem with old, obsolete dams.

No question that removing big dams is expensive, but taking a fish-dead river and bringing back salmon often proves to make dam removal economically viable. The fish are worth millions to a community. Thus, in 2012, 62 dams in 19 states were removed. Pennsylvania removed 13 dams, Massachusetts 11 and Oregon nine.

This year, the Veazie Dam was removed from the Penebscot River in Maine. Other dams on that river are scheduled to go, and when they do, that will open up more than 1,000 miles of habitat for Atlantic salmon and many other species of native fish that run from the ocean to breed in fresh water. In the 1800s, more than 50,000 Atlantic salmon ran up the Penobscot, and when the dams are gone, they will return.

One small dam was removed on the Potomac near Cumberland, Md., in 2007 by Pittsburgh Plate Glass. That opened up five miles of river to trout. In January, a federal grant was awarded to study removal of another Potomac River dam at Cumberland. They will test for contaminants in the sediment that might be released by the demolition. No decision on removal has been made.

North Carolina is using mitigation banking as an incentive to remove dams. Developers who might hurt a stream must improve or restore one somewhere else in order to allow them to develop. A private investor buys a dam, removes it and gets mitigation credits allowing development. Such projects improve the ecology and economics of an entire area. It’s an innovative approach, and it apparently works to the benefit of communities and stream and river ecology.

Dams serve useful purposes, but some are outdated and obsolete. Others are unsafe. And others block fish spawning and economic benefits to an area. That is why Steve Hollenhorst was right when he predicted dam removals. In the past 20 years, more than 800 dams have been removed in the United States, and the effort will continue.

DR. DAVE SAMUEL is a retired wildlife professor and writes the “Know Hunting” column for Bowhunter magazine. Visit his website, knowhunting.com.