Thinking Clearly About Demolishing Dams

PCFFAIn the midst of the current regional debate over the fate of a number of dams, first off, to see why in many cases dam removal makes good sense, we should consider the current state of the nation’s aging dams. There are, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ National Inventory of Dams, approximately 84,000 dams in the nation providing a range of benefits that were built for a wide variety of purposes. This is a staggering number – almost one dam built in the U.S. for every day since the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Yet no dam can exist forever. All have engineered lifespans, after which their reservoirs silt up, their concrete structures crack and deteriorate and they can catastrophically fail—endangering the lives, property and natural resources (including drinking water supplies) of those who live far below and around them.

An increasing number of the nation’s 84,000 dams are now economically obsolete, many are near or past their engineered lifespan and quite a few no longer function to provide the benefits they were intended to produce. According to a January 2009 report by the Task Committee of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, The Cost of Rehabilitating Our Nation’s Dams, over 4,400 (at that time) of these 84,000 dams were considered to be physically unsafe by state dam safety inspectors. From 2005 to 2008, their report notes, the states reported 566 dam incidents, including 132 dam failures – and that number is likely under-reported. As more and more dams exceed their engineered lifespan, the nation’s dam failure rate is also expected to accelerate. That report also noted that:

Without proper maintenance, repairs and rehabilitation, a dam may become unable to serve its intended purpose and could be at risk for failure. State and federal dam inspection programs can identify deficiencies in dams, but inspections alone will not address safety concern(s) posed by inadequately maintained or outdated dams. For most dam owners, finding the funds to finance needed repairs or upgrades is nearly impossible. The lack of reliable funding to resolve dam safety issue(s) poses a threat to public safety nationwide.”

That important 2009 study also concluded that the cost of rehabilitation up to current safety standards of just the nation’s non-federally owned dams would be $51.46 billion (even more in 2022 dollars).

Congressional efforts to help provide those funds, the study noted, have been few and paltry compared to the urgent need. The report also notes that, at least at the time written, there was only one federal program available for rehabilitation of non-federally owned dams (the Watershed Rehabilitation Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-472, Sec. 313)), and its funding was orders of magnitude smaller than what is actually needed.  While there is some money specifically earmarked for dam rehabilitation and/or removal in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, this is still only a very small fraction of what is necessary.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the average life expectancy of a dam is 50 years, with 85% of the dams in the Army Corps of Engineers National Inventory of Dams now more than 50 years old.

A number of these aging dams are in the Columbia Basin, which contains at least 400 dams that block salmon. New energy technologies are also making many of these dams increasingly obsolete insofar as they provide hydropower. Right now, the Pacific Northwest is so awash with non-fossil fuel “green” electrical power, that hydropower from the Columbia Basin’s lower Snake River dams sometimes has to be sold as “surplus power” on the open spot-market at a net loss.

In short, an increasing number of the nation’s dams are aging, obsolete and becoming an infrastructure nightmare with serious repercussions for the nation’s public health and safety. This is just as true for West Coast dams as it is elsewhere in the nation. Over the next 100 years, virtually all the dams on the West Coast will have to be either retrofitted at substantial cost, or removed and/or replaced.

Each Dam Judged on Its Own Merits

It is just as illogical to say “all dams are good” and should be kept as they are, as to say “all dams are bad” and should be removed. The fact is, each dam was originally designed and constructed to provide certain public benefits and engineered only to last for a specific life span. No dam can last forever – eventually it will either come down by human design or by catastrophic failure.

Dams also can have a serious economic downside: they can block valuable rivers, destroying other valuable natural resource industries (including commercial salmon fisheries), which in turn destroys jobs. Dams also can have devastating impacts on water quality and disrupt natural hydrological flows that cause other societal problems — such as greatly increasing the costs of providing clean drinking water to communities downstream.

Nor are dams truly “green power,” and certainly not greenhouse-gas neutral! Reservoirs impounded by dams generate significant amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere. Even though carbon dioxide has a longer-lasting effect, methane pollution sets the pace for atmospheric warming in the near term.

Any rational analysis must therefore conclude that dams that no longer provide sufficient public benefits to justify their existence, or which are reaching the end of their engineered life-span and becoming safety hazards, or which are creating other problems for society (such as blocking valuable salmon runs) and which push their economic value to society into the negative, are potential candidates for removal. Thus, each dam removal project must be evaluated and judged on its own merits, always on a case-by-case basis.

Dam removals are, in fact, nothing new—and by necessity, as many dams exceed their engineered lifespan, are accelerating in number. Information on 1,957 dams that were removed from rivers in the U.S. since 1912 is now available to the public, compiled by American Rivers. See “Free Rivers: The State of Dam Removal in the U. S.” (Feb. 2022) at

Recent hydropower dam removals in the Pacific Northwest that made good economic sense, and which also greatly benefited otherwise blocked salmon runs, include the removal of the Condit Dam and the Elwha/Glines Dam removal projects. In both cases, the salmon runs that those dams previously blocked are now returning in abundance, bringing back jobs to local coastal communities.

Some hydropower dams still make economic sense, but in a growing number of instances it is dam removal that makes the most economic sense, and is increasingly the common sense as well as least-cost option.

The only sensible economic pathway in such cases is simply to remove obsolete dams entirely and replace their power through newer, more cost-effective (i.e., cheaper) “green power” non-fossil fuel sources. Recent dramatic general reductions in the price of renewable energy sources increasingly make it feasible to cost-effectively replace hydropower plants, restoring rivers and their salmon runs in the process. 

Some of the Worst Salmon-Killing Dams

In its efforts to restore damaged West Coast salmon runs, PCFFA has pushed several West Coast dam removal projects.  Here are our current dam removal priorities:

Four Aging Klamath Dams: After literally decades of work to get the four fish-killing Klamath hydropower dams down, this end is finally in sight!

In February, 2022, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC —the federal agency which licenses hydropower dams) issued its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS —issued for the last stage of permits for a dam removal application) and FERC staff recommended full dam removal. FERC could approve Klamath four-dam removal any time after September 2022, in which case dam removal pre-construction would begin in 2023 with full reservoir drawdown and final removals throughout 2024. This will help restore what was once the third-largest salmon run in the continental U.S.

Four Lower Snake River Dams: The four Lower Snake River dams have been a disaster for salmon since they were built decades ago, long before modern environmental laws. However, there are now four separate forums in which Columbia River dam removals are being seriously discussed as what scientists say is the only way to save Columbia Basin salmon runs from extinction.

For more information on the years-long campaign to eliminate the Lower Snake River dams, see the Save Our Wild Salmon home page at: PCFFA has been a member and has served on the Board of Directors of this organization, occupying one of its two designed commercial fishing industry seats, for many years.

Two Potter Valley Project Dams: Although northern California’s Eel River once boasted some of the best salmon runs in California, its remaining salmon populations are now all listed as “threatened with extinction” under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

Chief among the causes of Eel River salmon declines are the two Potter Valley Project (PVP) hydropower dams, owned by Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E). The Project stores winter runoff from the upper Eel River and annually diverts ~60,000 acre-feet of Eel River water into the hydrologically separate Russian River, but typically generated only about 7 megawatts (MW) under its current 50-year FERC License – which formally expired on April 14, 2022.

PG&E first applied for Project relicensing on April 6, 2017 (FERC Docket No. P-77-285), but withdrew its Application on January 25, 2019. Significantly, however, PG&E has never committed to removal of any part of the project. The company is now repairing its physical plant, billing ratepayers for obsolete facilities and seeking indefinite yearly FERC extensions, apparently hoping to sell the project down the line.

Several Small Dams on Battle Creek—California Central Valley: Historically, Battle Creek was home to a number of major salmon runs, and North Fork Battle Creek provided ideal spawning, holding and rearing habitats for ESA-listed winter-run Chinook Salmon. Restoring winter-run Chinook access to that historic habitat could at least double their populations.

Remaining dams blocking Battle Creek are owned by PG&E, which was in the process of renewing a FERC hydropower license before its expiration on July 31, 2026. The first dam removal occurred in 2010 with the removal of Wildcat Dam on the North Fork, which reopened miles of salmon habitat. Efforts are now underway to initiate the removal of all dams in the South Fork as well as provide passage beyond the remaining North Fork Dams. This would greatly benefit the winter-run and spring-run Chinook salmon that once called those rivers home.

Winchester Dam on Oregon’s North Umpqua River: The Winchester Dam is a low, “high hazard,” log-based dam more than 130 years old, blocking more than 160 stream-miles of high-quality salmon habitat, including for ESA-listed Oregon Coastal Coho. It no longer generates power, only serving to create lakefront property for a handful of rich landowners at the expense of a major salmon fishery. PCFFA is in active litigation to fix or remove this dam and restore these key salmon runs.

In short, the commercial fishing industry generally (and PCFFA in particular) has long played a major role in restoring dammed streams and returning key salmon runs to their historic (but restored) inland spawning and rearing habitat. This is work the commercial salmon fishing industry must continue. This is how we will guarantee our future.

Glen Spain is NW Regional Director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and its sister organization, Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR), working out of their joint NW Office, PO Box 11170, Eugene OR 97440-3370, Email: Phone: (541) 689-2000.  He is also the Commercial Fisheries Representative to the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) Habitat Committee.