Jump-Starting the Dam Removal Movement in the U.S.
By Katy Neusteter
New eras often start with a bang. That was the case in September when explosives blasted a hole in a concrete dam that had barricaded Maryland's Patapsco River for more than 110 years.
Like so many defunct and outdated dams in the United States, Bloede Dam's impact on the Patapsco far outweighed its usefulness. Bloede produced electricity for less than 20 years. By then, so much sand and rock clogged its turbines that the dam became impossibly expensive to maintain. Instead, the power company shut it down. But for more than 100 years, Bloede stood as a monolith, blocking migrating fish, costing taxpayers millions in upkeep and drowning at least 10 people who couldn't escape the underwater whirlpool at its foot.
Excavators are currently removing Bloede's last vestiges. Soon, native shad, alewives and herring will migrate from the Chesapeake Bay to the shoals where their ancestors have spawned for millennia. Boaters and swimmers will reconnect with their local river. The Patapsco River will come alive and boost the entire Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.
Removing unused dams, like Bloede, is one of the most important things we can do for rivers and the ecosystems they support.
"Think of rivers as the veins and arteries of our country," said Bob Irvin, president and CEO of American Rivers, a national river conservation organization, which also employs this writer. "Just like in our bodies, our veins and arteries work best when they are free and clear of obstructions."
A free-flowing river supports abundant fish and wildlife and provides intangible benefits, such as a place to rest and reflect. Rivers also supply two-thirds of Americans' drinking water. While dams can provide benefits in the form of hydroelectricity and water storage, they can also be ecologically disastrous. In addition to blocking fish migrations, human-made structures can destroy seasonal pulses of water that keep ecosystems working properly. Some dams—especially those used for power—can withdraw all the water from streams, leaving entire stretches of river bone dry.
But here's the thing: Dams aren't built to last forever. Most have a lifespan of just 50 years (by 2020, 70 percent of our nation's dams will be over 50 years old). The cost of repairing and maintaining these obsolete structures can be significant—even more expensive than removing the dams altogether. In cases like Bloede's, removal can be the preferred option for a dam owner burdened with a crumbling structure.
"Dams are not like the pyramids of Egypt that stand for eternity," said former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, in 1998. "They are instruments that should be judged by the health of the rivers to which they belong."
Babbitt himself was at the riverside celebration 20 years ago, when Maine's Kennebec River ran free for the first time in 162 years with the removal of Edwards Dam. It was the first time the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—which licenses dams—ordered a dam to be removed because the environmental costs outweighed the economic benefits. This decision was the result of years of advocacy by conservation and environmental organizations. We at American Rivers pushed the agency to use an existing law that requires equal consideration of power and non-power values—and it worked. Today, the Kennebec River has the largest run of alewives and river herring on the eastern seaboard.
Freeing the Kennebec jump-started a dam removal movement in the U.S. Since then, American Rivers has undertaken hundreds of dam removals, and is working with partners to strengthen and advance the river restoration movement.
"Lawmakers and conservationists used to see removal as a radical, pie-in-the-sky idea," said American Rivers' Director of River Restoration Serena McClain, who has assisted in the removal of dozens of dams. "We've proven that it's a viable, cost-effective solution that can bring significant benefits to the environment, community and economy."
The dam removal movement continues to grow stronger, seeing a record year in 2017: Communities, nonprofits and government agencies tore down 86 dams out of rivers nationwide, bringing the total number of dams removed from U.S. rivers to approximately 1,500. More than 85 percent of these came down in the past 30 years. There is also a growing call for more dams to be removed internationally.
"Our vision is to have rivers full of fish," said Herman Wanningen of the World Fish Migration Foundation, an organization based in the Netherlands that works to protect fish populations and free-flowing rivers. "There are great examples around the world where the environment is healthier because rivers were set free. We want to share these inspiring stories and show that dam removal is a viable option."
Looking ahead, the biggest dam removal in Europe's history will restore more than 2,050 miles of free-flowing rivers in Estonia. In the U.S., plans are underway to tear down four dams on the Klamath River in Oregon and California. Demolition could begin as soon as 2020 and will restore 300 miles of habitat for salmon. In Washington State, American Rivers and partners are working to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River that, once removed, will boost salmon populations and benefit the entire web of life, including imperiled orca whales, in Puget Sound.
"With dam removal, it's not about what we're taking away," McClain said. "It's what we're gaining. This is about getting people to embrace the power and potential of a natural river. Free-flowing rivers will give us so much if we just give them the chance."
For advocates of healthy rivers, there is much more work to do. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that at least 90,000 dams block U.S. rivers and streams. Many are obsolete or unsafe. Moreover, each dam removal project requires costly and time-consuming studies, engineering, permits and planning. River advocates also continue to have to fight new dams proposed for hydropower and water supply. American Rivers and its partners recently stopped dam proposals on Washington State's South Fork Skykomish and Colorado's Maroon and Castle creeks, for instance.
"Not every dam will be removed," Irvin said. "But the old mindset that the best use of a river is to shackle and harness it, to control it, is over. Now we understand the many benefits of healthy, free-flowing rivers. It's a simple but radical idea that the best use of a river could be to let it flow freely."
"In most cases, a dam is no longer the best solution for power, water or flood protection," Irvin added. "Today, there are better, more reliable, more cost-effective alternatives."
For example, restoring the low-lying areas—or floodplains—around rivers gives our waterways room to spread out. Healthy floodplains provide vital habitat for fish and wildlife, help rivers accommodate floodwaters caused by more frequent and intense storms, and—in concert with limiting development in areas prone to flooding—help shore up some communities' resilience in the era of climate change.
As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Edwards Dam removal in 2019, the nation's river conservation movement is thriving and growing every day.
Citizens can help. Become informed about which dams in your area serve their intended purpose and which ones don't. Get involved in river conservation by connecting with your local river group. Make your voice heard in input sessions about proposals to build new dams and relicense existing dams. Spend time getting to know your local river or stream. Lastly, take heart: No dam is built to last forever. But rivers will endure.
Katy Neusteter is the senior writer at American Rivers. Her writing has appeared in Outside, Wired and The Denver Post.
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The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is the deepest and longest period of malaise in a dozen years. Our colleagues at the University of Vermont have concluded this by analyzing posts on Twitter. The Vermont Complex Systems Center studies 50 million tweets a day, scoring the "happiness" of people's words to monitor the national mood. That mood today is at its lowest point since 2008 when they started this project.
The Hedonometer measures happiness through analysis of key words on Twitter, which is now used by one in five Americans. This chart covers 18 months from early 2019 to July 2020, showing major dips in 2020. hedonometer.org<p>These same tweets also indicate a potential salve. Before pandemic lockdowns began, doctoral student <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=0P0ZYbIAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Aaron Schwartz</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10045" target="_blank">compared tweets before, during, and after visits to 150 parks, playgrounds and plazas</a> in San Francisco. He found that park visits corresponded with a spike in happiness, followed by an afterglow lasting up to four hours.</p><p>Tweets from parks contained fewer negative words such as "no," "not" and "can't," and fewer first-person pronouns like "I" and "me." It seems that nature makes people more positive and less self-obsessed.</p><p>Parks keep people happy in times of global crisis, economic shutdown and public anger. Research has also shown that transmission rates for COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Is-risk-of-coronavirus-transmission-lower-15287602.php" target="_blank">much lower outdoors than inside</a>. As scholars who study <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=yFzb2EUAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">conservation</a> and how nature <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=CCnUeN8AAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">contributes to human well-being</a>, we see opening up parks and creating new ones as a straightforward remedy for Americans' current blues.</p>
Park Visits Are Up During the Pandemic<p>According to the Hedonometer, sentiments expressed online started trending lower in mid-March as the impacts of the pandemic became clear. As lockdowns continued, they registered the lowest sentiment scores on record. Then in late May, effects from George Floyd's death in police custody and the following protests and police response once again could be seen on Twitter. May 31, 2020 was the saddest day of the project.</p><p>Recent surveys of park visitors around the University of Vermont have shown people <a href="https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/sd3h6" target="_blank">using green spaces more</a> since COVID-19 lockdowns began. Many people reported that parks were highly important to their well-being during the pandemic.</p>
<div id="4c7e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bc0ac146ab2a94228f32d973fc2ab272"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1289428912879964160" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">#Goldengatepark #sf #quarantinemood https://t.co/9l3ufnbkt6</div> — Suvd (@Suvd)<a href="https://twitter.com/Suvd19486406/statuses/1289428912879964160">1596258783.0</a></blockquote></div><p>The powerful effects of nature are strongest in large parks with more trees, but smaller neighborhood parks also provide a significant boost. Their impact on happiness is real, measurable and lasting.</p><p>Twitter records show that parks increase happiness to a level similar to the bounce at Christmas, which typically is the happiest day of the year. Schwartz has since expanded his <a href="https://arxiv.org/pdf/2006.10658.pdf" target="_blank">Twitter study</a> to the 25 largest cities in the U.S. and found this bounce everywhere.</p><p>Parks and public spaces won't cure COVID-19 or stop police brutality, but they are far more than playgrounds. There is growing evidence that parks contribute to mental and physical health in a range of communities.</p><p>In a 2015 study, for example, Stanford researchers sent people out for one of two walks: through a local park or on a busy street. Those who walked in nature showed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005" target="_blank">improved moods and better memory performance</a> compared to the urban group. And a team led by <a href="https://penniur.upenn.edu/people/eugenia-gina-south" target="_blank">Gina South</a> of the University of Pennsylvania showed in a 2018 study that greening and cleaning up blighted vacant lots in Philadelphia <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298" target="_blank">reduced local residents' feelings of depression, worthlessness and poor mental health</a>.</p>
Creative Strategies<p>It isn't easy to create new parks on the scale of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park or the Washington Mall, but smaller projects can expand outdoor space. Options include greening vacant lots, closing streets and investing in existing parks to make them safer, greener and shadier and support wildlife.</p><p>These initiatives don't have to be capital-intensive. In the University of Pennsylvania study, for example, renovating a vacant lot by removing trash, planting grass and trees and installing a low fence cost only about US$1,600.</p><p>Urban green space is most needed in neighborhoods that have lacked funding for parks, especially given <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/coronavirus-race-deaths.html" target="_blank">COVID-19's disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people</a>.</p><p>Cities can also create parklike spaces by <a href="https://theconversation.com/with-fewer-cars-on-us-streets-now-is-the-time-to-reinvent-roadways-and-how-we-use-them-140408" target="_blank">closing streets to cars</a>. Many cities worldwide are currently retooling their transportation systems for the post-COVID-19 world in order to <a href="https://thecityfix.com/blog/bicycles-slower-speeds-livable-city-paris-mayor-anne-hidalgo-plans-ambitious-second-term-dario-hidalgo/" target="_blank">reallocate public space</a>, widen sidewalks and make more space for nature.</p><p>Urban designers, artists, ecologists and other citizens can play a direct role, too, creating pop-up parks and green spaces. Some advocates <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-15/a-brief-history-of-park-ing-day" target="_blank">transform parking spaces into mini-parks</a> with grass, potted trees and seating for just the time on the meter, to make a larger point about turning so much public space over to cars.</p><p>Or cities can invest a little more. Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Arlington, Virginia, have won <a href="https://www.tpl.org/parkscore" target="_blank">national recognition</a> for their ambitious investments in public park systems. These areas could serve as models for neighborhoods that lack access to parks.</p>
<div id="25fd0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="383f0d2df0237e9359c30dcce6cd6c42"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1276558744835379201" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Looking to safely get outside? Check out the best parks for social distancing in this year's top ten ParkScore citi… https://t.co/HJjEtDsrTD</div> — The Trust for Public Land (@The Trust for Public Land)<a href="https://twitter.com/tpl_org/statuses/1276558744835379201">1593190296.0</a></blockquote></div>
A New Park Deal?<p>The United States has historically driven economic recovery with major infrastructure investments, like the New Deal in the 1930s and the 2009 <a href="https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/american-recovery-and-reinvestment-act.asp" target="_blank">American Reinvestment and Recovery Act</a>. Such investments could easily include nature-positive spaces.</p><p>Parks are not panaceas, as evidenced by the widely publicized <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/nyregion/amy-cooper-false-report-charge.html" target="_blank">racist confrontation between a white woman and a Black birder</a> in New York's Central Park in early July. But Hedonometer data add to a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/7/eaax0903?utm_source=miragenews&utm_medium=miragenews&utm_campaign=news" target="_blank">growing body of evidence</a> that they provide <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807504116" target="_blank">clear mental health benefits</a>. Creating and expanding parks also <a href="https://www.nrpa.org/contentassets/f568e0ca499743a08148e3593c860fc5/economic-impact-study-summary.pdf" target="_blank">generates jobs and economic activity</a>, with much of the money spent locally.</p><p>We believe investments in nature are well worth it, offering both short-term solace in difficult times and long-term benefits to health, economies and communities.</p>
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By Gianna-Carina Grün
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