By Tara Lohan
For much of the 20th century humans got really good at dam building. Dams—embraced for their flood protection, water storage and electricity generation—drove industry, built cities and helped turn deserts into farms. The United States alone has now amassed more than 90,000 dams, half of which are 25 feet tall or greater.
Decades ago, dams were a sure sign of "progress." But that's changing.
Today the American public is more discerning of dams' benefits and more aware of their long-term consequences. In the past 30 years, 1,275 dams have been torn down, according to the nonprofit American Rivers, which works on dam-removal and river-restoration projects.
Why remove dams? Some are simply old and unsafe—the average age of U.S. dams is 56 years. It would cost American taxpayers almost $45 billion to repair our aging, high-hazard dams, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. In some cases it's simply cheaper to remove them.
Other dams have simply outlived their usefulness or been judged to be doing more harm than good. Dams have been shown to fragment habitat, decimate fisheries and alter ecosystems.
Depending on the size and scope of the project, dam removal may not be an easy or quick fix. Getting stakeholders onboard, raising the funds and performing the necessary scientific and engineering studies can take years before actual removal efforts can begin.
And some projects are controversial and may never get the green light. For decades stakeholders have debated whether to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River in eastern Washington. The dams provide about four percent of the region's electricity, but also block endangered salmon from reaching critical habitat. The fish are a key food source for the Northwest's beleaguered orcas.
The debate over the Snake River dams is ongoing, but with each new dam removal researchers are learning important lessons to help guide the next project. One of the most important lessons gleaned so far is that rivers bounce back quickly. Recent research has shown that "changes in the river below the dam removal happen faster than were generally expected and the river returned to a normal state more rapidly than expected," said Ian Miller, an oceanography instructor at Peninsula College and a coastal hazards specialist.
Miller has worked on studies both before and after the removal of two dams on Washington's Elwha River, which is the largest dam-removal project thus far. But more projects, including a big one, may soon be grabbing headlines.
Here are four that we're watching closely that show the diversity of dam-removal projects across the country.
The most anticipated upcoming dam-removal project in the U.S. will be on the Klamath River in California and Oregon. It's the first time four dams will be removed simultaneously, making it an even bigger endeavor than those on the Elwha.
The hydroelectric dams—three in California and one in Oregon—range in height from 33 feet to 173 feet.
"We've never seen a dam-removal and river-restoration project at this scale," said Amy Souers Kober, communications director for American Rivers.
Local tribes may be among the most enthused for the dams' removal. Their communities depend on salmon as an economic and cultural resource, but fish populations began to crash after the first dam on the Klamath River was constructed 100 years ago.
A 2006 protest by Klamath Basin Tribes and allies. Patrick McCully / CC BY 2.0
While the removal of the dams won't make the Klamath River entirely dam-free (there will be two more upstream dams remaining), it will open up 400 miles of stream habitat for salmon and other fish. It's also expected to help improve water quality, including reducing threats from toxic algae that have flourished in the warm water of the reservoirs.
The project is hailed for the huge coalition for stakeholders that have become collaborators. "This has been decades in the making, with so many people involved, from the tribes, to commercial fishermen, to conservationists and many others," said Kober. "Dam removals are most successful when there are a lot of people at the table and it's a truly collaborative effort."
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and an independent board of consultants are now reviewing the plan for the Lower Klamath Project, a 2,300-page analysis of the dam removal and restoration effort. And the project is also working on receiving its last permitting requirements. If all proceeds on track, the site preparation will begin in 2020 and dam removal in 2021.
On September 11, as the Southeast readied itself for approaching Hurricane Florence, a blast of explosives breached the Bloede Dam on the Patapsco River in Maryland. Crews have been working to remove the rest of the structure and restoration efforts are expected to continue into next year.
The dam—the first submerged hydroelectric plant in the country—was built in 1907 and is located in a state park and owned by Maryland Department of Natural Resources. For the past decade concerns have mounted over public safety, obstructed fish passage and other aquatic habitat impacts from the dam, prompting a plan to remove it.
The removal of the dam is "going to restore alewife and herring and other fish that are really vital to the food web and the Chesapeake Bay," said Kober. Researchers expect to study the results of this ecosystem restoration for years to come.
There's another reason to watch this project: The dam's removal also involves some interesting science and technology. Researchers have employed high-tech drones to help them understand how much of the 2.6 million cubic feet of sediment from behind the dam will make its way downstream and at what speed. With the sensitive ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay just 8 miles downstream, sediment inflow is a big concern.
"Just the idea the we can fly drones over this extended reach with some degree of regularity means that we can see evidence of sediment movement from the pictures alone," explained Matthew Baker, a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who is helping to lead this effort. "We can track the movement just by taking low-altitude aerial photos and we can try to model that within a computer and estimate the amount of sediment and the rate of movement."
This kind of research lowers the cost of monitoring, says Baker, and can help future dam-removal work, too. "I think it's going to be employed regularly," he said.
3. Middle Fork Nooksack
About 20 miles east of Bellingham, Wash., a dam removal on the Middle Fork Nooksack River is the "next biggest important restoration project in Puget Sound," said Kober.
The diversion dam, built in 1962, was constructed to funnel water to the city of Bellingham to augment its primary water supply source in Lake Whatcom—but at the expense of fish, which cannot pass over or through the dam.
Bald eagles and other birds on the Nooksack River. Mick Thompson / CC BY-NC 2.0
Since the early 2000s the city, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Lummi Nation and Nooksack Indian Tribe have worked on a plan to remove the dam in order to restore about 16 miles of spawning and rearing habitat for three fish listed on the Endangered Species Act: spring Chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout.
The primary purpose of the dam removal "is recovery of threatened species," said April McEwen, a river restoration project manager at American Rivers. "The goal of the project is to provide critical habitat upstream for those salmon species to be able to spawn." It's also hoped that more salmon will reach the ocean and help the same endangered orcas affected by the Snake River dams. The whales depend on the fish for food and are at their lowest population in 34 years.
But a critical part of the dam-removal project is continued water supply for the city.
Currently the dam creates a "consistent and reliable municipal water flow," said Stephen Day, project engineer at Bellingham Public Works. The current project design has identified a new diversion about 1,000 feet upstream where water can be withdrawn with similar reliability but without the need for a dam.
The design phase of the project is currently being finalized, and McEwen said they hope to have all the permits by March 2019 and the dam removed later the same year. But first, the project still needs to secure some needed state funds.
The dam removal is "a really big deal" for the entire Puget Sound ecosystem, said McEwen. "Salmon are keystone species. If their numbers are down, we all suffer, including humans and especially orca whales."
A project that has been in the works for a decade could put the "rapids" back in Grand Rapids. More than a hundred years ago, the construction of five small dams along a two-mile stretch of the Grand River in the Michigan city drowned the natural rapids to facilitate transporting floating logs to furniture factories along the banks.
Those factories long ago closed, and the aging dams are now more of a safety hazard than a benefit for the city.
A Grand dam. Matthew Sutherland / CC BY 2.0
The idea of removing the dams came as part of a larger effort initiated in 2008 to green the city. "Early on the main focus was recreation, looking at ways to bring back rapids for kayaking," said Matt Chapman, director and project coordinator of the nonprofit Grand Rapids Whitewater, which has been leading the river-restoration effort. "But as the project has evolved and as we've learned and studied the river, we've realized there are so many other benefits to a project like this."
"The more we found out about the river, the more we realized how impaired it is biologically," said Wendy Ogilvie, director of environmental programs at the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council. "We hope through the revitalization there will be some recreational opportunities, but a lot is fish passage and a better habitat for native species."
The dams set to be removed may be small—the largest is about 10 feet tall—but the project isn't simple. For one thing, the presence of the Sixth Street dam, the tallest, has blocked the further invasion of parasitic sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus), which have spread from the Atlantic Ocean throughout the Great Lakes over the past two centuries. The project is working to create a new structure that will prevent the lamprey from migrating further upstream and preying on native fish after dam removal.
Project managers discovered that the federally listed endangered snuffbox mussel (Epioblasma triquetra) also makes its home in this stretch of river. The project hopes to carefully remove and relocate the mussels to suitable habitat during the construction process, which is expected to take about five years. The mussels may be returned after construction and restoration. The dam removal is also expected to help state-listed threatened lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) return to their original spawning grounds upstream and benefit smaller fish like logperch, which have been blocked by the dam and are vital for mussels.
The river-restoration process is also spurring a greater revitalization effort along the riverfront to provide more accessible green public space and economic opportunities.
"It's not just restoring the river, but also how the community gets to the river from the neighborhoods," said Chapman.
He said they hope to have all the necessary permits in hand to begin working on habitat improvements in the lower part of the river next summer, including finalizing a plan for the mussels' relocation. It will likely be another three or four years before the sea lamprey barrier is complete and the Sixth Street dam will be removed following that.
Much work has been done over the years to clean up the river and curb pollution, said Ogilvie. The next step is helping to restore the ecology and recreational opportunities. "The best part about the project is having people value the river and think of it as a resource," she said. "If we could see sturgeon coming back up the river … that would be pretty amazing, too."
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
By Victoria Masterson
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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By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.