Know Your H20
July 05 2013

Moving beyond the dam era

by Joe Geever and Julia Chunn-Heer

From the earliest development of the western United States, the federal government, through agencies in the Interior Department and Army Corps of Engineers, was in the business of diverting natural river flows and building dams. Many of these projects were built with the vision of converting the mid-west and western states into rural “irrigated agricultural” communities – a concept new to farmers migrating from the east coast. Later, in the fever pitch to build dams, they were justified as energy development projects where rainfall was abundant or to provide storage. 

The arguably well-intentioned program of building dams has had significant adverse impacts on our coast and ocean. Most everyone has at least some understanding of the impacts on the Gulf Coast from damming and “straightening” the mighty and once-meandering Mississippi River, the Colorado River dams’ impact on the estuarine habitat of the Sea of Cortez, or the impacts of storage and diversion of the Chattahoochee River.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and only recently have these agencies recognized the importance of removing dams. Ironically, some of these dam removal plans are the result of sediment being trapped behind the dams, rendering them useless for water storage. That trapped sediment was once nature’s way to ensure stable beach and river delta replenishment – allowing nature to protect our coasts from devastating coastal erosion. Equally as important, dam removal restores ecosystems that support the recovery of fish populations and our coastal communities’ economic and cultural dependence on healthy fisheries.

Several Surfrider Foundation chapters have been advocating local dam removal for decades.

Our Ventura County Chapter has had a long-term multi-pronged campaign of “managed retreat” and beach restoration at Surfer’s Point. Including the longer-term goal of removing Matilija Dam to allow natural maintenance of this beautiful stretch of the coast and the rebuilding of steelhead trout populations to their former abundance.

The recent removal of the Elwha Dam was also supported by our Olympic Peninsula Chapter. Demolition of that dam released more than 24 million cubic yards of silt and sediment downstream.

These two dam removal projects highlight the important multiple benefits of dam removal, as well as the difficult task of restoring these rivers to healthy ecosystems after the damage is done.

But a recent article on the plan to remove the San Clemente Dam, on the Carmel River in Monterey California, highlights a sea change in the mindset of the federal agencies that built these dams in the first place. Beyond the importance of the dam removal project itself, is the statement by one of the project managers that this is not an isolated situation, nor limited to dams on the west coast:

“There are approximately 79,000 dams in the U.S., according to the Army Corps of Engineers. Thousands of them are obsolete, silted up or otherwise suited for removal, although finding the funding to remove them and figuring out what to do with the millions of tons of sediment behind them often pose major challenges.

‘For a while we were building dams all the time, but our understanding of rivers has evolved and we know the value of them,” Irvin said. “It’s a golden age for river restoration and we’re just at the beginning of it.’

This project, which also received some funding from federal grants, is being watched as a possible model for other dam removals across the country.”

Removing the San Clemente Dam would help restore habitat for steelhead trout whose numbers have dropped from 1,350 in 1965 to 249 this year; and release the 2.5 million cubic yards of sand, gravel and other sediment that has piled up behind the dam. However difficult it may be, returning the natural transportation of sediment to our coasts is critical to Surfrider Foundation’s mission. Furthermore, finding better multi-benefit solutions to water mis-management is the focus of our developing “Know Your H2O” program.