Boom: Removing 81 Dams Is Transforming This California Watershed
Removing one gigantic dam can have a massive effect on restoring a river ecosystem.
But bringing down more than 80 smaller dams? That can also cause a transformation.
This spring the Forest Service, aided by U.S. Marine Corps members, will blast apart 13 more dams in the Trabuco ranger district in Southern California's Cleveland National Forest.
It's the last phase of a groundbreaking project that began more than five years ago to remove a total of 81 dams from four streams in the mountains of Orange County.
"Nobody's really taken on a project this large and with this many partners and methods," says Forest Service fish biologist Julie Donnell, who's been working on the project.
The mammoth undertaking is designed to help boost populations of native aquatic species — most importantly Southern California steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss), which are federally listed as endangered.
It may also be a crucial learning tool due its sheer scope. Last year an estimated 90 dams were removed across the country, and nearly a quarter of those were in the Cleveland National Forest. That makes what's happening in California the place to watch as organizations plan for other multi-dam removal efforts around the country.
"Looking at what the Forest Service did is a really smart way for other agencies to begin to think about their infrastructure," says Serena McClain, the director of river restoration at the nonprofit American Rivers, which tracks dam-removal efforts. "The Forest Service is showing that the federal government can lead on this and demonstrate the possibility for the private sector and municipalities."
In addition to the work in the national forest itself, the ecological success of the project hinges on a downstream effort to remove two more barriers that prevent steelhead from reaching the forest as they migrate from the ocean.
The two projects have brought together a diverse, and unlikely, coalition of transportation departments, federal agencies, environmental nonprofits, local governments, and even the U.S. Marine Corps to help complete an ocean-to-headwaters restoration of more than 35 miles.
"This addresses one of the major threats to endangered southern steelhead," says Sandra Jacobson, the South Coast regional director of California Trout, which is leading the downstream effort. "Once you open up the rivers, it allows a tremendous change in the accessibility of steelhead to their historical habitat so that they can go in and reproduce."
A Group Effort
Large dam removals, like those on the Klamath River in California and Oregon, or the hotly debated Snake River dams in Washington, get lots of media attention. But smaller dam removals are quietly happening all across the country.
In the past 20 years around 1,100 dams have been removed in the United States — many of them aging, unsafe structures that had outlived their usefulness.
That's the story in the Cleveland National Forest, too.
Not a lot is known about the early history of the dams there, but most were likely built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work program started to help Americans rebound from the Great Depression, says Kirsten Winter, a biologist in the Cleveland National Forest who has spearheaded the dam-removal project. It's not unusual for dams to be built in national forests, but this high a concentration of small dams may be a regional phenomenon in Southern California forests.
Most of these original dams would likely have washed away over time, but in the Cleveland National Forest, Orange County increased the size of the dams using native rock and mortar from the 1940s through the mid-1970s. Gates were lowered in the spring and raised in the fall to control the flow of the rivers. The impounded water was used mostly for fish stocking and recreation and was also available for fire suppression.
But eventually, Winter says, the dams aged, and the county got tired of maintaining them. Many washed out in storms. A few were removed in the 1980s by the county, and the gates were taken out of the remaining dams. Most fell back under Forest Service jurisdiction.
In recent years it became clear that some of the dams posed safety hazards and impeded fish migration. As part of a federal recovery effort to recover populations of endangered southern steelhead, a plan was developed to remove the 81 dams in the San Juan watershed on Upper San Juan Creek, Trabuco Creek, Holy Jim and Silverado Creek.
Projects of this scope require environmental assessments under the National Environmental Protection Act. Because the Forest Service had the forethought to take a watershed view of the project from the get-go they only needed to complete one environmental assessment for the removal of the whole kit and caboodle, which helped make the permitting process more efficient.
With that in place, the dam-removal work began in December 2014. The project has a $1.2 million price tag, but the majority of funding hasn't come from the Forest Service itself.
Before and after dam removal on San Juan Creek in the Cleveland National Forest. Julie Donnell / USFS
The project has generated a lot of interest and a diverse array of partners, including California Department of Transportation, Federal Highways Administration, Orange County Parks, Orange County Transportation Authority, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the U.S. Marine Corps. The coalition has brought funds, organizational support, technical knowledge and a lot of energy to the process.
"People are really pretty enthused about removing dams," says Winter.
Despite all the partners, it's still been a learning experience, she adds, because the dams vary so much in size and accessibility. Some are just a few feet high and 10 feet wide. Others reach 14 feet in height and stretch up to 100 feet across.
To breach the dams and break apart the mortar, crews employed a wide range of techniques. For sites near roads, they bought in conventional excavators. Steeper canyons required the use of a nimble "spider" excavator. Explosives took down a few dams where appropriate, while other places required sledgehammers and jackhammers. An extra bit of muscle (organizational and otherwise) came from a partnership with Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton. Corps members have helped remove 31 dams since 2018.
The biggest benefactors of the dam removals in the Cleveland National Forest will be steelhead — a type of salmonid. Like salmon, steelhead are anadromous, spending their time in both freshwater streams and the ocean. But unlike salmon that return to their natal headwater streams to spawn and die, steelhead will often spawn more than once.
They're also a key indicator species, says Jacobson. "When they disappear, that means there are probably multiple issues within a watershed."
In the San Juan, dams are one of them.
Endangered Southern California steelhead spawning in Maria Ygnacio Creek in Santa Barbara County, Calif. Mark H. Capelli / WCR / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
"Dams create a very artificial situation," says Winter. "It's not just that they hold water, but they retain sediment and then they create these weird splash pools below."
Without the dams, the streams are able to create a more natural gradient and pool structure. That's good for other native wildlife like the arroyo toad and the arroyo chub, both federally listed as endangered, as well as the California newt, a California Species of Special Concern.
While the process of removing the dams can be a bit messy, "we've seen no negative effects to the habitat or to species due to the dam removal," says Donnell.
One of the biggest concerns with any dam removal is ensuring that any trapped sediment released from behind the structures doesn't cause ecological problems as it moves downstream. But Donnell says they've timed the removals to account for that and the streams naturally carry large sediment loads during storm events.
"We're actually doing some of dams in phases rather than all at one time because of the sediment load that's being held behind them," she says.
In areas where dams have been removed, Donnell has already noticed an improvement. "The bedload and sediment transport have been able to naturally flow once again," she says. "And the channel is starting to adjust back to a natural state."
A Connected Watershed
As groundbreaking as the Cleveland National Forest's efforts are, the benefits for steelhead hinge on the downstream initiative.
Just five miles inland from Doheny State Beach, around the town of San Juan Capistrano, two barriers on Trabuco Creek block steelhead from 15 miles of upstream spawning habitat in the San Juan Creek watershed.
A quarter-mile-long concrete flood-control channel runs underneath five bridges, including the north- and southbound lanes of Interstate 5. The drop and the speed of water flowing through the hardened channel inhibits steelhead from making it through the gauntlet.
The second barrier sits a half-mile downstream, where another 20-foot drop under a bridge for the Metrolink regional railway poses an insurmountable roadblock for steelhead.
To solve both of these problems, California Trout is leading the multiagency design effort for a technical fish passage that will enable steelhead to navigate these obstacles using staggered weirs. At the I-5 obstacle, an additional fish transport channel will provide steelhead with an express lane to avoid the flood control channel and pass under the array of bridges.
The organization is working with fellow nonprofit Trout Unlimited, as well as Orange County's flood control district and public works office, the city of San Juan Capistrano, California Department of Transportation, and the Metrolink railroad association.
"We just received funding to complete the design," says Jacobson. The fish passages are expected to be completed around 2023 to 2025.
It's one part of a larger regional effort by the South Coast Steelhead Coalition, which consists of more than 35 organizations working to recover stable populations of the species in Southern California. Removing barriers to fish passage is a key element of the strategy, as are ensuring adequate water quantity and quality and removing nonnative species that compete for limited resources.
But there's one more objective: helping native rainbow trout. These resident trout are the same species as steelhead, but with a different life history — they don't migrate to the ocean. Since steelhead have been blocked from the upstream waters for nearly a century, resident trout populations have suffered from genetic isolation.
Only two resident trout populations remained in the region and one had to be emergency evacuated by a bucket brigade following the Holy Fire in 2018, which burned across the forest and threatened the water quality in the streams.
The removal of all the stream barriers — on and off the forest — will provide an opportunity for aquatic species to be more resilient. The wildfire is a perfect example of why that's needed, says Jacobson.
"It really gives the aquatic species the mobility they need to move around in response to drought, floods and wildfires," she says. "It's good for all sorts of species, too, not just fish."
With the dam removals in the Cleveland National Forest nearing completion, Donnell says she's hoping to soon begin presenting her data and methodologies so others can learn from the project.
"We've definitely heard from other forests and other districts wanting to know how we went about it, because this is new," she says.
McClain says American Rivers has been sharing the project's success story because it's a good example of how to think holistically about managing water and restoration opportunities for aquatic ecosystems.
San Juan Creek in the Cleveland National Forest shortly after a dam was removed. Julie Donnell / USFS
But it also makes sense fiscally. Why spend money maintaining dams we don't need?
"Even from a federal budget management perspective, we should be looking at where there may be projects on the federal books that are no longer serving a purpose," she says.
Thanks to the coordinated efforts in the San Juan watershed, southern steelhead will have a better chance of survival. But efforts to try and aid their recovery also have a larger benefit.
"We're not only restoring their environment, but also ours," Jacobson says. "We're actually improving the rivers overall."
And in the process, they may have established a model for mass dam removal across the country.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Kang-Chun Cheng
Modoc County lies in the far northeast corner of California, and most of its 10,000 residents rely on cattle herding, logging, or government jobs for employment. Rodeos and 4-H programs fill most families' calendars; massive belt buckles, blue jeans, and cowboy hats are common attire. Modoc's niche brand of American individualism stems from a free-spirited cowboy culture that imbues the local ranching conflict with wild horses.
The History of Horse Management<p>Before the 1950s, feral horses were largely unregulated in the U.S. They were released, grazed, captured, killed, sold, and otherwise <a href="http://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/WHB-Report-2020-NewCover-051920-508.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">managed by local inhabitants</a> as they saw fit. Around that time, Velma Bronn Johnston, aka "Wild Horse Annie," started raising public awareness of the "perceived inhumane capture and treatment of free-ranging herds."</p><p>Thanks in part to Johnston's efforts, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1971. It declared that the animals "shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this, they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."</p><p><a href="http://science.sciencemag.org/content/341/6148/847.full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">This act</a> has been amended four times since its conception to accommodate the fluctuating opinions and conditions around maintaining a "thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands"—an admirable although highly subjective goal. Achieving it involves juggling competing interests: those of local residents, permanent grazers, hunters and fishers, advocacy groups, conservationists, and Indigenous tribes.</p><p>The Bureau of Land Management must manage these many conflicting interests. Modoc County's <a href="https://www.fs.fed.us/wild-horse-burro/territories/DevilsGardenPlateau.shtml" target="_blank">Devil's Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory</a> epitomizes the challenges of this task. Officially deemed wild horse territory, the garden consists of 258,000 acres and is wholly within permitted livestock allotments. It is also home to wildlife such as cougar, antelope, migratory birds, and aquatic species dependent on delicate high-desert riparian areas.</p><p>The presence of wild horses has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631530094X" target="_blank">decrease native wildlife species diversity</a> for both birds and mammals. Pronghorn antelope are an icon in Western grasslands, known for their annual 350-mile migration along historic routes estimated to be 5,800 years old. This awe-inspiring trek is one of the longest large-mammal migration corridors remaining in North America, but 75% of <a href="http://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00548.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pronghorn migration routes</a> have already been lost because of disturbances from the accelerated leasing of public lands and energy development. Horses also affect the pronghorn's yearly migrations by <a href="http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631630218X" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">monopolizing watering holes</a>, thus preventing native species from drinking.</p>
Indigenous Support for Ecological Balance<p>Ken Sandusky, a public information officer who has worked for the Forest Service in Modoc County for 13 years, lives by his station's mission statement: "Caring for the Land and Serving People." In his work, Sandusky aims to include the broad range of stakeholders and often acts as a tribal liaison. Sandusky himself is a member of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma, but as a Modoc native, is more culturally in touch with the local Klamath tribe.</p><p>When it comes to rangeland health, he says, there's a tangible split in what that actually means. "It depends on what you are measuring the outcome against," Sandusky explains. Range managers may perceive progress from a year-to-year basis, but to many Indigenous tribes, the baseline for "progress" goes back generations, to pre-contact times. "They have long memories," he says. "Tribes see damage that is a hundred-plus years in the making."</p>
A Willingness to Try New Things<p>"Americans don't know what's happening on these lands," says Suzanne Roy, the executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, an advocacy organization. The Bureau of Land Management, she says, "is run by and for the livestock industry. They come from a ranching background. The term 'rangeland' management itself illustrates how livestock management is the dominant perspective."</p><p>Roy is particularly concerned about how resources are being allocated: "Policies of land management agencies don't reflect the desires and interests of the public." To illustrate, most Americans associate public lands with national parks and environmental conservation; only 29% of respondents to a recent poll considered livestock grazing an acceptable use of those lands.</p><p>Grazing on public lands certainly aligns with the financial interests of cattle ranchers and helps explain why they insist on increased wild horse management. Cattle can <a href="http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS21232.pdf" target="_blank">graze on public lands</a> for $1.35 per animal per month, while grazing on comparable private land costs ranchers $23 per animal per month (American taxpayer dollars make up the difference). To be fair, though, small-scale ranching would not be viable without public lands.</p><p>The campaign hopes to work toward more equitable resource allocation and improvements to overall habitats for horses and wildlife generally. "There are workable solutions to this issue," Roy says. "Common pushback from rangers is that new conservation strategies will 'destroy our way of life,' but change doesn't have to be bad."</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0362331994900264" target="_blank">social conservatism</a> intrinsic to human cultures makes change seem daunting and people reluctant to try new tactics even in the face of suboptimal systems. Roy uses a case in adjacent Marin County to illustrate: Until 2001, the county ran a USDA program focused on killing apex predators (e.g. coyotes, mountain lions, and cougars) in defense of livestock. Unfortunately, this strategy fails to take into account the science of predators. Killing one mountain lion, for example, creates a vacuum and will eventually lead to increased competition for this newly available territory. In 2001, Marin introduced a country-run program that promoted nonlethal methods such as fox lights, guard dogs, and fladry to deal with predator incidents while compensating ranchers for sheep and lambs lost to predation.</p><p>Ranchers were initially livid, concerned that bans on shooting and trapping hindered their rights, making them defenseless against livestock predation. But 15 years later, a majority agreed that this form of humane <a href="http://www.projectcoyote.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Camilla-Fox-Thesis-FINAL-January-2008.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">adaptive management </a>has successfully reduced both livestock losses and the total number of predators. Ensuring its continued success, the program requires active participation on behalf of all stakeholders and long-term commitment from the local government for support.</p><p>As one fifth-generation sheepherder, Gowan Batiste, explained in an interview to the <a href="https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/mendocino-county-rancher-and-others-calling-for-non-lethal-wildlife-management/ar-BB16CJ8g" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ukiah Daily Journal,</a> "Livestock is a food of desperation for predators; the more you harass them and make life difficult for them, the more likely they are going to come into conflict with humans."</p>
Keeping Wild Horses in Check<p>When it comes to wild horses, many solutions are already in the works. Through annual autumn wild horse roundups, known as gathers, the Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals has become one of the U.S.'s most successful adoption sites. The California Cattlemen's Association, a nonprofit trade association and organization popular among ranchers in Modoc, urges its members to support the wild horse gathers in Devils Garden, saying they are humane, good for the horses themselves (since competition for scarce water and forage resources may instigate aggression and <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1439-0310.1981.tb01930.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">herd violence</a>), and necessary to support local ranchers and Modoc's agriculture-reliant economy.</p><p>Another popular solution for controlling wild horse populations is a fertility-control vaccine called PZP, given to female horses on the range <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ur7w3UPTCsk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">using dart guns</a>. Mares are tracked on foot or with game cameras while drones are used to locate more elusive herds. The PZP vaccine has been endorsed by the American Wild Horse Campaign as the "<a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/fertility-control" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">most promising strategy</a>" for managing wild horses in their habitats and is also recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. Importantly, a dose of the vaccine only costs $30.</p><p>Lastly, land acquisition and <a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/equitable-share-resources" target="_blank">grazing lease buyouts</a> can promote equitable sharing of public lands and available forage. Acquiring key pieces of land adjacent to or within federally designated wild horse habitat areas can reduce conflicts over resource allocation.</p>
A Global Search for Solutions<p>Pastoralists all over the world face similar land-use conflicts, despite huge variations in climate and culture. The ongoing situation across rural California resonates with that of Fulani cattle herders in Niger and Sami reindeer herders in the Arctic.</p><p>Herders everywhere are accused of having too many animals or are perceived as selfish and irresponsible by their own communities. Overgrazing is certainly an issue, but it's not simply the number of animals that matters: The <a href="https://savory.global/holistic-management/" target="_blank">amount of time</a> animals spend in a certain area is critical to rangeland health. And in the context of such allegations, the ecological value of grazing is frequently omitted. Grazers, both wild and domestic, <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/food-everyone/2019/02/04/restoring-the-range-can-beef-be-earth-friendly/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are key to regulating soil health and allowing for species diversity and coverage, </a>as well as efficient carbon sequestration.</p><p>Part of the problem in these heated grazing debates is that moderate viewpoints are drowned out by extremist agendas—those who prioritize wild horse populations at all costs and those who want all of the horses gone, period. "The majority of people don't really have strong views about the horses," Sandusky says. "But the ones who do can get really into it." These unwavering views make it difficult to find compromises that account for all stakeholders.</p><p>"There is no biological problem, merely a social one," says professor Nicholas Tyler, a pastoralism expert at the University of Tromsø in northern Norway. Tyler maintains that in the case of horses and cattle in the West, as with so many others, the so-called equilibria argument is specious and quasi-biological. "Certainly a lot of horses will influence the species composition," he says. "Remove the horses, things change. Add horses, things change again. There is nothing magical about that."</p><p>But Tyler takes it one step further: "There never was, is, or will be a balance. There are shifting equilibria, which is something quite different," he says. "It is up to the community to decide which state of that equilibrium it prefers."</p>
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Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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