Micaela Unda Rights to a River: Dam Removal Policy

Rights to a River
Dam Removal Policy

by Micaela Unda


“Our river,” “their river,” “my river.” We are so quick to lay claim to such a natural flowing powerful body of water– to regulate, restrict, and control it. Laws upon laws cite ownership and constraints demand certain usage. With rivers yet another element to be conquered and utilized, dams are an easy next step. As the flow of water diminished and the control of nature grew, dams were constructed on every major waterway spanning the U.S. Could a river offer even the slightest source of energy? Dam it. Is there any possibility of flooding? Dam it. Does a far away population need a water supply? Dam it. Without even a second thought, cement blockades shape, redirect, and obstruct waterways crucial to fish populations, sediment flow, recreation, and water quality. With endless laws concerning dam construction, the true question however is what regulations are in place concerning how these cement blockades are removed? How are we to reverse the environmental damages done? Vocal about our rights to a river, our claim is both spoken vehemently and documented prevalently. Yet, when it comes to dam removal, silence is all that is heard.


Riddled with issues of sediment buildup, fish migration disruption, and water quality problems, dams are not new to the arena of environmental and ecological critique. Within North Carolina, the Neuse River estuary has suffered from “excessive eutrophication: algal blooms, low dissolved oxygen, fish kills and outbreaks of toxic microorganisms.” A deprivation of sediment has starved downstream and drastically affected the river’s health, which “can be attributed principally to the completion of the dam and formation of Falls Lake in 1983.”1 Furthermore, such a blockade creates an impassable barrier for anadromous fish species, such as the striped bass and American shad, migrating during spawning season. Yet such environmental problems are not restricted to North Carolina; these ever-seen issues plague the majority of rivers blocked by dams across the U.S.


So what can be done? Enter dam removal. Addressing dam policies within North Carolina, rules regarding dam construction are documented in detail. With policy jargon requiring endless qualifications to be met and approval needed from the “State Dam Safety Engineer, Dam Safety Section, Division of Land Resources, and DENR,” flow charts of red tape are never-ending. Blather of “piezometers,” “phreatic surface” and “seepage stability” fill the pages of a complicated and lengthy process, but dam removal policy remains absent. With over one-third of states lacking statutes regarding dam removal, the “Federal Power Act of 1920 is silent on the issue of dam decommissioning and implicitly assumes that continued operation of dams is in the public interest.”


Lost in the privatization of waterways, dam construction policies, and river regulation, access, the act of developing laws addressing our rights to a river has shrouded the need for laws denying our access. With private land restricting management on water quality, debates over stream-bed ownership, and conflict over policies, water has been commodified to the point where it is reduced to simply another resource of which to be taken advantage. Yet with 80,000 dams in operation throughout the country, the immediate and abrupt removal of all dams is implausible, economically infeasible, and impractical, resulting in a whole new set of dilemmas. So where do dams stand? In relation to inefficient dams where upkeep costs exceed productivity, removal is more than revered. However, if TNT were to result in the violent destruction of the blockade or if excavators were to tear and strip away at the cement wall, even then, the rights of the river would not be returned. Standing for so long as an impassable obstacle, the dams and their removal are “complicated by the disposition of stored sediments, which if released above background levels, could adversely affect downstream properties on adjacent flood plains, as well as sensitive species which occupy wetlands at the mouth of stream systems.”


A dramatic influx in sediments only exacerbates the problems, but perhaps with strategic dam removal and planning, the river’s health could be returned. With phased removal of a dam to stabilize buildup, excavations of sediments hauled to “receiver sites, such as eroded beaches,” and transportation via a “mechanical conveyor system downstream to the mouth of the respective watercourses or beaches,” the effects of the dam removal could be minimized.4 With thousands of dams operational, nationwide removal is out of the question. However, strategic demolition of inefficient, out-of-date, and purposeless dams and the implementation of conscientious design with fish ladders would restore life to the rivers currently stripped of passage. Dams no longer producing enough hydroelectric energy to offset the environmental and economical costs or dams containing sediment filled reservoirs can be rendered as no longer useful. But to be effective, such strategic demolition must be established by comprehensive dam removal policies. With restricted resources and limited budgets, removal requires ways to determine which dams are optimal for said removal. When faced with dam deconstruction, agencies can implement both “the development and adoption of a prioritization scheme for what constitutes an important dam removal, and the establishment of minimum levels of analysis prior to decision-making about a dam removal.” Through experimental dam removal on smaller scale dams, a thorough deconstruction process can be established.


Although some dams remain needed, the life of a river should not be controlled by phrases of “our,” “their,” and “my.” Flowing freely, meandering through valleys and over mountains, the river is ignorant to our boundaries, territories, and laws. Yet to protect it from towering blockades and environmental degradation, new dam removal policies must be encouraged, established, and enforced.




Overall I understand that there is a need to recognize instances where dams are no longer functioning in a way where their benefits outweigh their costs, and to formulate policy frameworks to deal with such dams. However, I am curious about how pertinent dam removal policy would be to the nation as a whole. Some statistics might help in putting the issue in perspective—for instance, how many dams nationwide are costing more than they are benefitting? Also, how many of these dams are beyond repair/improvement, and so need to be removed? Has anyone done any research regarding how dams might be modified to reduce environmental impact and/or increase hydroelectricity production? If so, results of these studies might better inform us as to whether it is more efficient to completely remove underproductive/environmentally damaging dams, or to modify them in some way.

The actual dam removal process would be an interesting topic to provide more details on. You mention the possibility of experimenting methods for removing dams on smaller dams, but is there more information on the difficulties of removing dams, and the environmental concerns that have to be taken into consideration? Have people attempted to remove dams before, and if so, how did their attempts pan out?

Generally I am convinced of the fact that dam removal needs more policy attention, but there is some data/information missing here that I think would be helpful in proving the absolute necessity of dam removal policies.


I am very intrigued by the perspective you took on dams. Throughout all of the environmental science classes I’ve been in, we’ve focused on dams themselves—their pros, their cons, and what their purpose was in our society. However, the topic of dam removal is something that I was relatively unaware of. I was used to the conversation on dams starting and ending with “dams produce cleaner energy, but at the same time cause sediment buildup and other problems for aquatic communities downstream.” Dams certainly have their pros and cons, but I didn’t realize firstly, how serious these negatives truly were, and secondly, that dam removal was even an option.

I was always under the impression that it was unclear whether dams had a net positive or negative effect on river communities. I recall learning about the positive effects that the harnessing of hydroelectric power has—it’s widely known how imperative it is for our world to make the switch to cleaner energy. However, your blog post has made it clear that there are so many environmental negatives associated with dam usage that it may not even be worth the cleaner energy that it is producing. This conclusion is interesting to me and leads me to a question: if not dams, what? Hydroelectric power has widely known benefits and is a much cleaner, more energy efficient alternative to non-renewable energy sources such as coal and petroleum. I would hope that, even with the removal of many dams, we could still find innovative ways to harness the energy that bodies of water have to offer.

Additionally, I appreciated your concession that it is unreasonable and unrealistic to push for the removal of all dams. Dams are so rooted in our society at this point that to quit the dam process cold-turkey would be detrimental for certain economies that may rely on hydroelectric power. That being said, some action must be taken. While it is of course not practical to remove all dams, you have made it clear based on your assertions and supporting evidence that dams do more harm than good for our environment, and to even remove some of them would be incredibly helpful.


Just as you have pointed out that legislature does not cover dam removal policies, I have never thought much about this issue. However, I don’t agree that dams should be removed just because they have larger upkeep costs than hydroelectric energy profits. There are so many environmental benefits and costs to both keeping and removing a dam because of the different ecosystems that such actions create. The presence of a dam may prove an issue with fish spawn, but the removal of the same one may seriously diminish a local frog or insect population. I’m not sure the best way to evaluate the decision to destroy or keep a dam, but it would need to consider the upkeep and environmental costs of both.



I agree that the presence of dams significantly hampers the fertility of downstream soil, creates algae blooms upstream, and severely inhibits fish migration. However, in the case of dams in the eastern US, especially in the piedmont, the purpose is not hydroelectric power but drinking water. Wake County depends on Falls Lake to provide a relatively clean and, more importantly, stable water source for its 1,000,000 citizens. The same holds true for Lake Norman and Charlotte. Without these concentrations of water it would have been impossible for these cities to grow as much as they have in the past 30 years. Severe droughts, such as the one in 2008, would have likely dried up the Neuse River in Wake County if there had not been a dam in place. Another particular problem that the dams of the east were put in place to control is flooding. Up until the construction of dams in the 1970s and 80s the communities of eastern North Carolina were susceptible to widespread flooding whenever a serious storm came in. While this flooding does help improve the fertility of the soil by distributing nutrients downstream, it can also provide destruction to residents downstream. Dams may be unnatural, but by being unnatural they prevent the destruction brought about by floods and the devastation brought about by drought.



The quote that really resonated with me from your post is the one taken from one of your sources: “Federal Power Act of 1920 is silent on the issue of dam decommissioning and implicitly assumes that continued operation of dams is in the public interest.” I wonder how many other areas of infrastructure have been operating under the same assumption—this is good for society now, which means it must be good for society in the future. This blog briefly mentions the different justifications that have been used in building a dam, but just as you point out, that does not mean we have not arrived at a point today where we don’t need quite as many dams as we currently have. As early commenters have pointed out, dams certainly have their pros—and your blog acknowledges this—but we are facing an issue of obsoleteness that has yet to be interpreted by policymakers.
I think your blog raises a great point not only in the discussion of dams but in the greater discussion of technology introduced under carefully planned strategies that pay little attention to the reversal of such an introduction. I doubt today’s policies on windmills or subsidies for solar paneling have any details regarding how to remove these if such action becomes necessary. Our society is far too focused on how to fix things now and assumes the same solutions will continue to fix things in the future.



In general I think that you offer an interesting perspective on dams, one that I had not considered before. Whenever I previously thought about dams, energy and the Industrial Revolution were the first things that came to mind. I knew that there had to be some kind of environmental impact due to the construction of the dam, but I always thought that it was more pollutant based rather than affected the ecosystems living in the rivers. But as soon as I read your post I of course realized that dams would have to affect fish populations trying to migrate and would definitely block nutrients from reaching fish populations downstream.

However, I am curious as to how necessary it is to remove all damns that cost more to keep up than they are generating in hydroelectric profits. You make it clear that damns have significant environmental impacts–both in their creation and destruction. Thus, I think that damn removal should be consider on a case by case basis instead of a blanket “remove all if the profits aren’t worth it” policy. You mention that there are limited resources to remove the dams, and even after a dam is removed, rights are not returned. Returned to whom? Also, who is responsible for paying for dam removal? You also discuss the need for a damn removal policy. Would this policy discuss who can remove the dam, or should damn removal be entirely left to the government? Your blog was informative and made me realize (from my excessive questions) that there is a lot for me to learn on this issue.


[1] Stow, C. A., Borsuk, M. E., & Stanley, D. W. (2001). Long-term changes in watershed nutrient inputs and riverine exports in the Neuse River, North Carolina. Water Research, 35(6), 1489-1499. Retrieved February 17, 2016.

[2] Bowman, S. (2001). American shad and striped bass spawning migration and habitat selection in the Neuse River, North Carolina. NCSU Library. Retrieved March 1, 2016.

[3] North Carolina Dam Safety Laws and Regulations 2007

[4] Doyle, M. W., Stanley, E. H., Harbor, J. M., & Grant, G. S. (2003). Dam removal in the United States: Emerging needs for science and policy. Eos Trans. AGU Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union, 84(4), 29. Retrieved February 17, 2016.

[5] Poff, N. L., & Hart, D. D. (2002). How Dams Vary and Why It Matters for the Emerging Science of Dam Removal. BioScience, 52(8), 659. Retrieved February 17, 2016.

[6] Capelli, M. (2007). San Clemente and Matilija Dam Removal: Alternative Sediment Management Scenarios. U.S. Society on Dams, 2-13. Retrieved February 17, 2016.

[7] Doyle, M. W., Harbor, J. M., & Stanley, E. H. (2003). Toward Policies and Decision-Making for Dam Removal. Environmental Management, 31(4), 453-465. Retrieved February 17, 2016.