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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Changing Attitudes Towards America’s Dams

Air Date: Week of

PART 1: TORPEDO THE DAMS? We'll explore the pros and cons of dam removal to restore river ecosystems and populations of migrating fish. It's a controversy in areas where dams still irrigate farms and power industry. In other places there’s little fuss. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports on the last hours of one dam in Virginia that nearly everyone was happy to see come down. Then a look at dams nationally, and our attitudes towards them, with Mark Capelli, who studied dam removal for the Aspen Institute. Capelli coordinates fish restoration for NOAA.

PART 2: We continue our conversation with NOAA’s Mark Capelli, then turn to Congressman George Nethercutt, from eastern Washington State. Dams in the Northwest, on the Snake River, generate electricity and let barges move grain to markets in Asia. Nethercutt rejects the notion that these, too, should be removed. Finally, a look back at the nation's largest dam removal to date, the Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River. Doug Watts fishes the river and is watching it come back from his apartment window.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Much of America’s economic might was built by harnessing the power of water with dams. In the 1800’s the rivers of the East were used to power mills of the industrial revolution, and in the 1900’s the rivers of the West were pooled behind massive hydroelectric power generators and reservoirs of drinking water. The technology allowed new cities to bloom in the desert.

But this year, as many as 45 dams will be torn down. Twenty-first century calculus shows some dams aren’t worth the costs of repair, or the cost to migrating fish. Most of these dams are small, but the trend is having a big impact. We begin our coverage with a report from Living on Earth’s Jeff Young. He went to the Rappahannock River in Northern Virginia to witness the last hours of the Embrey dam.


YOUNG: Some 6,000 residents of Fredericksburg, Virginia, gathered on the banks of the Rappahannock for songs, speeches and flag-waving patriotism – the kind of event that usually marks a ribbon cutting or groundbreaking for new construction.

This, however, was a celebration of destruction. The Army Corps of Engineers was about to blow up one of the town’s landmark structures – the Embrey Dam. And even the person who shared its name thought that was a good idea. A. Thomas Embrey III, grandson of the man who built the dam, told the crowd his grandfather’s writings hint that he, too, would blow it up if he knew the toll it has taken on the river’s migrating fish.

EMBREY: He writes of fish so numerous that they appear, and I quote, as a mass of molten silver moving against the water of the river. I think you will agree with me that his answer would be yes, and he probably too would say, let the river run free. Thank you and God bless this great country of ours.


YOUNG: It was a remarkable display of just how much attitudes about dams have changed. Virginia’s senior senator, Republican John Warner, even found support for dam removal in the Bible’s Book of Ezekiel.

WARNER: ‘There will be a very great multitude of fish because these waters go there. For they will be healed and everything will live wherever the river goes.” So I simply say with the greatest humility, dear friends, we are acknowledging today that each of us here is doing God’s will. Thank you very much.


YOUNG: The Lord may work in mysterious ways, but Warner was more direct. As chair of the Senate's powerful Armed Services Committee he has considerable sway with the dam builders at the Army Corps, something he made clear to a Corps officer.

ARMY OFFICER: Yes sir, it will be done!

WARNER: Salute me, damnit! Thank you. I'm Chairman of the Armed Services Committee. I handle your pay and promotion, you got that?


YOUNG: Warner, an avid fisherman, pushed the Corps to find money and time to remove the Embrey, not an easy task. Taking out a 25-foot high, 700-foot wide dam took months of engineering studies and planning.


YOUNG: But it culminated in one satisfying moment.


YOUNG: Ten explosive charges sent concrete crashing down. And for the first time in 94 years, the Rappahannock made one great rush from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay.


YOUNG: After the all-clear signal, John Tippett stood on the banks and smiled through a hundred foot hole in the dam that looked to him like a dream come true.

TIPPETT: This is spectacular. This is what we’ve been waiting for for 20 years.

YOUNG: Tippett leads Friends of the Rappahannock, a river conservation group founded nearly 20 years ago, he says, to speak for the river because it could not speak for itself. The river’s message was: get rid of the dam. But when he first floated that idea it hit a wall of opposition.

TIPPETT: We ran into all kinds of obstacles of, well, there’s no way that can come down. We need it for this, we need it for that, it’s gonna affect our water supply, it’s going to cause flooding – just so many issues that needed to be dealt with from an educational perspective. But thankfully, in the case of this river, by working things out, sitting down with officials, and reasoning through them we were able to build a level of comfort with this proposition. Because, indeed, it did make good sense once you thought it through.

YOUNG: Many residents realized the Embrey had long outlived its former uses for hydroelectric power and drinking water. Some city officials saw a safety hazard in its crumbling concrete. But Tippett says it was the river itself that really sold people on the idea of dam removal.

The region’s rivers are often dangerously polluted, but the Rappahannock is one where people boat, swim and fish with little worry about getting sick. The poster child for this was a silvery, spotted fish: the shad which swam up the Rappahannock to spawn but could only make it as far as the dam. Each spring, shad turned the water at the foot of the Embrey Dam a frothy silver of frustration. So Tippett's group decided to lend a hand.

TIPPETT: Every year we’d do a fish passage, a bucket brigade around the dam here, and we would stage about 50 to 60 volunteers around the corner of the dam. And bucket by bucket, they’d hand em around the dam and quickly try to get them in the water on the other side. And year after year as we did that, it helped raise the public awareness about the plight of this fish, the fact that this dam’s a relic and needs to go. And it’s a safety hazard as well. There are a lot of good reasons for getting rid of it.

YOUNG: Lawmakers and local officials helped haul the fish and got buckets full of reasons to remove the dam. Luckily for Tippet’s group, one of those bucket brigadiers later took charge of civil works for the Corps of Engineers. Tippett says even that famous dam building bureaucracy slowly moved to his way of thinking about the Embrey.

TIPPETT: It really is fantastic to see the Corps taking a lead in this regard. And it’s great to see that large bureaucratic institutions have the ability to change. Indeed, it’s another testament to the power of persistence and how working together with the environmental community, we can start to see changes in monolithic structures. [LAUGHS] Even the Corps.

YOUNG: When the dogwoods bloom on the Rappahannock's banks this year, Tippett will stand at the dam's remains to watch something no one has seen here for a century: a run of shad in a free-running river. And the group created to speak for the river will have just one more message to translate.

TIPPETTT: The river is saying thank you.

YOUNG: For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Fredericksburg, Virginia

CURWOOD: Many people have a dam not too far from where they live, perhaps even several of them. And maybe you’re wondering whether your nearby dam is a candidate for removal. Well, each dam is unique. It occupies its own stretch of water – serving, or no longer serving – its original purpose.

Joining me to assess the pluses and minuses of any given dam, and the challenges of removal, is Mark Capelli. Mr. Capelli studied water impoundments for the Aspen Institute and he now works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Mark, tell me, what are some of the reasons to tear down a dam?

Matilija Dam in Ventura, California is a candidate for dam removal. (Photo courtesy of Mark H Capelli, Southern California Steelhead Watershed Archive)

CAPELLI: Well, the most obvious reason is the dam no longer serves the function for which it was built, whether it be water supply, or flood control, or any other purpose. Dams do have a definite life span, and as dams get older their functions deteriorate. And that’s probably the single most important consideration in removal of a dam, whether it continues to perform the function that it was intended to perform.

CURWOOD: Tell me a little bit about this. You say that dams have life spans, and they have particular functions. Could you walk me through some of those functions and then tell me a bit about a dam’s life span?

CAPELLI: Sure. Well, the functions really depend a lot on the part of the country that you’re in. Out west we have a semi-arid environment here and it only rains a couple of months out of the year. So people have built dams to store water for storage and then later re-use. But all of these dams are built in watersheds that have soils that are easily eroded, and those dams over time begin to accumulate materials and sediment, so their storage capacity is diminished over time. And therefore, their water supply ability is also diminished.

CURWOOD: And out east – what are some of the reasons that dams get to be of old age?

CAPELLI: Well, dams in the East are generally considerably older, because the East, of course, was settled first. And those dams are different in a lot of different ways. They’re, first of all, much smaller. They’re often built not for water supply -- because they have a different climate there – they’re built to operate mills or other industrial purposes. And, in many cases, these communities have changed, the economies have changed, they don’t rely on the same kinds of power supplies. And so those kinds of dams simply have become outmoded.

CURWOOD: A few minutes ago we were listening to a story about the Embers Dam on the Rappahannock in Virginia. And people’s feelings about whether that dam should go or stay changed over a period of years, to the point where it wasn’t very controversial when, in fact, the dam came out. What makes the equation change for people?

CAPELLI: Well, dam removal is a fairly new undertaking, and I think there’s been a lot of uncertainty about what it would mean to have a dam removed. So, naturally, people are apprehensive about it. But once the planning has actually been done, people become more familiar and more comfortable with the idea of dam removal. And then, when they actually see a dam removed and understand what it really means and doesn’t mean, I think they develop a better sense for it.

CURWOOD: I’m just wondering how much of this change in attitude comes from people noticing the negative effects from dams – you know, the sand that doesn’t wash onto a beach, or the fish that they can’t catch anymore. How much of this dam removal movement is a function of growing public awareness of these things?

CAPELLI: Well I think it very much is. Most of these dams, of course, were built in the early part of the 20th century before we had anything like environmental review. So, many of these issues weren’t addressed when the dams were built, and it’s only later that we’ve come to understand what some of the long-term effects of building these facilities are. And by looking at dam removal, we go back and we ask what effect has this dam had? We know what the benefits are but what other effects have these dams had? And when we start to spell those out, people begin to understand that it’s a mixed picture, and the removal of dams sometimes is a way to address some of those other issues.

CURWOOD: I wonder how important fishermen are in this movement to remove dams.

CAPELLI: Well, they’re very important. And on the East coast, one of the principle motivations for removing dams is to bring back some of the fisheries that depend upon fish being able to come out of the ocean, move into these rivers and to spawn. And the spawning habitat has, in many cases, been blocked by these dams. So this is a major motivation.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk a bit about the life cycle of the dam. Over time you say that the sediment builds up in an impoundment of water which makes the dam less useful and perhaps raises the odds that it should be removed. But what do you do with all that sediment if you do decide to remove a dam?

CAPELLI: Well, the removal of the sediment is probably the biggest challenge of any dam removal that involves sediment. The dam structure itself is rather small compared to the amount of sediment that is stored behind the dam. And we haven’t had experience yet with removing a very large dam with a very large amount of sediment behind it. We’re still working out those issues. You can remove it mechanically in some way. You could sluice it, perhaps, through a pipeline mixed with water. Or you could remove the dam in a gradual fashion and let the river itself do the work, washing down the sediment downstream and ultimately to the ocean. But the exact approach that you take will vary from dam to dam and the amount of sediment, the kind of sediment, the condition of the sediment, and so on. But it’s clearly the single biggest challenge we have – removing dams that have a lot of sediment stored behind them.

CURWOOD: We’ll have more about the challenges and benefits of dam removal with Mark Capelli in just a moment. We’ll also hear from a Congressman about why he wants to keep several large dams operating in the Pacific Northwest. And a look back: five years after the biggest dam removal to date, in the state of Maine. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Vangelis “Theme from Antartica” ANTARCTICA SOUNDTRACK (Polygram Records – 1983)]

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood and my guest is Mark Capelli of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We’ve been talking about dams, and the difficulties of removing large river dams once they've been deemed obsolete. Mark, give us some specifics, if you will. Tell us about the Matilija Dam near you in Ventura County, California.

CAPELLI: The Matilija Dam was built by the County of Ventura, originally as a water supply. But it was built in a location where the rate of erosion is extremely high, so the dam has rapidly filled up with sediment. It’s almost 90 percent full now. It originally had a capacity of about 7,000 acre/feet, now it has a capacity of less than 500. So that’s a 90 percent reduction. And that’s one of the reasons there’s this strong interest in taking this dam down. It can’t just sit there filled with sediment. It becomes a white elephant around the neck of the local jurisdiction. It’s also a dam that’s had a major impact on the steelhead runs in the Ventura River. It’s blocked one of the principle steelhead spawning and rearing areas. So the removal of the dam would open those areas up for steelhead, and contribute in a significant way to the recovery of the steelhead runs in the Ventura River.

Steelhead taken from the Ventura River before the construction of the Matilija Dam in 1946. (Photo courtesy of Mark H Capelli, Southern California Steelhead Watershed Archive)

CURWOOD: Sounds like you think it would be a pretty good idea to take this dam down.

CAPELLI: Well, most people do who’ve looked at this. It has widespread support across the board for removal. A lot of people are also looking at it as an important demonstration project, of just how you go about removing a dam that’s very large – it’s approximately 200 feet high. It would be the largest dam removed in the U.S. to date. It’s also a dam that has a very large amount of sediment stored behind it, around six million cubic yards. So, it’s an important test case in just how you go about decommissioning and removing a structure of this size.

CURWOOD: What are you going to do with all that sediment if it comes down?

CAPELLI: Well, we’ve not completed the planning on this, but what we’re looking at is using the river itself to transport the majority of the sediment into the ocean.

CURWOOD: So, every time there’s a lot of rain or something it could move out some more sediment.

CAPELLI: Exactly.

CURWOOD: It might take you a number of years to do it that way.

CAPELLI: It’ll take a number of years, but it could also happen very, very quickly. If we are to go into a wet cycle like we were in the late 90s, a good part of that sediment could be removed within ten years.

CURWOOD: Out in the West I would think that there are some sediments that would be loaded with toxic substances such as arsenic and copper, if the river has been running through a mining territory. And I’m wondering, how could you remove a dam if it would then release tons of contaminated sediment into a waterway?

CAPELLI: Well, one of the first things that you have to do when you’re looking at a situation where there’s lots of sediment is, of course, do some very, very careful testing of the sediments. It may be that the pollutants or the toxic materials are just located in a portion of the sediment -- in a layer or in an isolated pocket. So, you could deal with it in that way. If the material is distributed throughout the sediment and you can’t really allow it to go downstream, then what you may want to do is excavate a channel through the sediment, remove that mechanically, and then stabilize the rest of the sediment.

CURWOOD: It sounds like it costs a lot of money to remove a large dam.

CAPELLI: Well, the removal of the dam structure itself is actually fairly cheap. It’s the management of the sediment that can be very expensive. And again, that’s going to depend on how much work you’re going to let the stream do, versus how much you’re going to do mechanically.

CURWOOD: How often is it cheaper to take down a dam than to rebuild it to make it work correctly?

CAPELLI: It’s hard to generalize, but what we have found to date is that the rehabilitation of an old dam to meet current standards is, in fact, very, very expensive. These are facilities that naturally age. It’s like a highway – if you don’t maintain it, it doesn’t maintain itself. People didn’t build dams with that in mind, though. And so, unlike a lot of infrastructure – whether it be highways, or sewage treatment plants, or water treatment plants – there really aren’t strong maintenance programs in place for dams. Dams, I think, because they work so simply, invited simplistic thinking. And it’s only been in the last ten or 15 years that people have suddenly realized, oh, this dam isn’t going to maintain itself in perpetuity. Just like a car, or a house – if you let the termites go in a house too long, pretty soon it’s not really fixable. It’s a tear-down. And maybe you don’t want to build there after all.

CURWOOD: Mark Capelli is a fish recovery coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

CAPELLI: You’re quite welcome.

CURWOOD: Now we turn to Republican Congressman George Nethercutt of eastern Washington State, where many farmers irrigate their crops with water pulled from behind dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and where dams provide inexpensive electricity – a lot of it – and slow the Snake River for important barge traffic. Welcome, Congressman.

NETHERCUTT: Thank you, happy to be with you.

CURWOOD: Let’s create a map now for people, in their mind’s eyes. The Snake River is born really in the Rockies, isn’t it, in Idaho?

NETHERCUTT: It is. And it comes down and meets with the Clearwater River from Montana and Idaho and then travels westerly along the southern tier of my Congressional district, and then on and meets up with the Columbia River, which then goes on into Portland and Vancouver and exits there to the ocean. So it’s a long, meandering river system that goes across a lot of farmland and a lot of open space. And Columbia and Snake kind of bisect my Congressional district and the state of Washington.

CURWOOD: And it’s the power of the Snake River falling out of the Rockies that made it so attractive, I guess, back in the 60’s as a source of electric power. It must generate plenty of electricity right up to the present day in your district there in eastern Washington.

NETHERCUTT: Yes, sir, it does.

CURWOOD: Tell me about these dams and how they’re viewed there.

NETHERCUTT: Well, the dams are viewed by those that are closest to them with favor. They provide, as you said, inexpensive and clean and renewable energy. They provide irrigation and some flood control. They provide transportation, they provide recreation, and they provide healthy salmon runs. And so, based on the attitudes of people in the state of Washington, primarily the eastern side of the state but also on the western, the population is glad that the dams are there. They’re providing cheap, inexpensive, and clean, renewable energy sources. And, otherwise, they provide commercial opportunities to the people in the region.

CURWOOD: Now, I’m thinking that these dams turn what would be swifter flowing, rather shallow rivers into a series of deeper, more still bodies of water that are of course good for huge barges of grain. And I guess what, that grain goes to the Pacific and to customers, what, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, I imagine?

NETHERCUTT: Literally around the world. We export about 80 to 90 percent of all the grain products we grow. We grow soft, white wheat, some of the purest and best in the world. We grow peas and lentils, potatoes. We have 250 crops that are born and raised, I’ll say, in the state of Washington. So, it’s a high and a heavy and a productive agricultural economy for our state.

CURWOOD: Now, there are some conservationists who argue that those four dams on the lower Snake River, in particular, that are so sensitive involving the salmon runs, they’re going to have to come down if salmon really are going to be able to reach up into that part of the river. What’s wrong with their analysis?

NETHERCUTT: Well, it ignores the cost, both to the salmon populations and certainly to the economy. It ignores the fact that the cost just to remove the dams is estimated to be one and a half billion dollars. And so I think they’re ignoring the economics of the situation. And they’re ignoring the consequences to the fish, and to the environment.

These are low cost, inexpensive, clean, renewable energy sources. I mean, hydropower is renewable, it’s clean, it’s as clean as you can get. And so what do you replace the energy load with? Is it fossil fuels? What do you do with the barge traffic that now takes the grain from farm to port and to market? It’s estimated that there would be 700 thousand diesel trucks that would be on the road barging – I should say transporting – that grain that is now barged down the river.

So from an environmental standpoint, from a cost standpoint, from an economic standpoint to the region, from an environmental standpoint, it’s a negative if you take those dams out. Because the people of our region have to have the power that goes with it. In fact, those dams will power a city the size of Seattle. So we have to replace that with something. And that’s certainly going to be anti-environmental to do the alternative.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you, Congressman.

NETHERCUTT: Thank you very much for having me.

CURWOOD: Perhaps the most famous dam removed to date in the United States was the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine in 1999. Doug Watts is a fisherman and activist with Friends of the Kennebec. He watched the Edwards Dam come down from an apartment he rented overlooking the river. Hey, Doug, you there?

WATTS: Yeah, Steve!

CURWOOD: Where were you when this dam first came down?

WATTS: I was across the street.


WATTS: Because that’s where I live.

CURWOOD: How are people using the river differently now that the dam, the Edwards dam, is down? Does it get a little crowded out there sometimes on the weekends?

WATTS: No. Actually, it was a lot more crowded when the dam was in because all the fish, the striped bass and the other fish, would essentially come right up to the dam and get stopped there, and the bait fish would get stopped, the alewives. So there was a traffic jam right around the dam and so all the fishing was concentrated in a pretty small area. And actually it became difficult to fish because everyone was crossing each other’s lines. And now, instead of having about a half a mile of river to fish below the dam, now there’s 20 miles up to the next set of dams in Waterville. So now there’s plenty of elbowroom. In fact, some people complain that now the fish have the advantage.


WATTS: Because before it was like shooting fish in a bucket because they were all jam-packed right below the dam. Now, they’re everywhere, they’re all over the place. And it’s actually for me, fishing – it’s actually harder fishing now because now the fish have the advantage, they can pretty much go anywhere they want. It takes more skill as an angler now than it did before. Before you could catch 60 stripers in two hours because they’re all packed into a pretty small area.

CURWOOD: So, it’s more of a sport these days?

WATTS: Oh, yeah. The other thing, too, is that once the dam came out and the river went back to its natural channel, natural gravel bars, no one had ever seen it before. So it was totally new territory. So as someone who is fishing, it’s like going to a lake that no one’s ever been to, ever. And you have to sort of figure it out from scratch.

CURWOOD: How do the fish figure this out? I mean, the anadromous fish like the salmon and the shad and such that go back up stream to spawn – they’re supposed to go back to where they were born. What do they do in this case?

WATTS: Actually, watching how the fish have reacted to this has been one of the most interesting things. Because a lot of people said just what you said, that these fish have been confined below this dam now for 150 years, and are they going to have an instinct in them which is going to say go up stream? And literally, as soon as the next spring came -- when the salmon, the shad, the alewives, the sturgeon, the stripers, they all came in and began their migration -- they just went right past the dam site and continued upstream, some of them. Some of them didn’t go upstream. Some of them stayed down around here, some of them went all the way up to the next set of dams, some of them stopped halfway. I think what’s happening now is that the fish have a really big selection of habitat. And now they’re able to choose the habitat that, in their opinion, is the best for spawning.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the insects there in the river. How did those change?

WATTS: Well, one of the things we learned from some of the consultants that worked on trying to predict what would happen with the dam removed is that – it was an education for me – is that the food web of a river starts with the algae that makes the rocks slippery. It’s called benthic algae.


WATTS: The aquatic insects eat that stuff, and the aquatic insects essentially form the base of the food web for juvenile fish and adult fish. And when the dam was in place, the sunlight couldn’t penetrate to the bottom because it was too deep. So there wasn’t food for aquatic insects. As soon as the river went down to its natural level - and most of it’s between five and ten feet deep – that essentially is perfect habitat for algae which the insects eat. And then everything else eats the insects – songbirds, swallows, flycatchers, kingbirds, and bats. And that’s what the fish eat, the baby shad, the baby salmon, baby bass. Everything is eating bugs. And by removing the dam and restoring 20 miles of really nice big river habitat, we created a bug factory.

CURWOOD: Now there are still plenty of dams on the river. Where are they and what’s going to happen to them?

WATTS: There’s a lot of dams on the river, just like there are on every river in New England, every large river in New England. The Edwards Dam was at the head of tide, which in terms of sea-run fish is the absolute worst place you could ever put a dam.

CURWOOD: What’s the head of tide?

WATTS: That’s where the tidal influence stops.

CURWOOD: It goes all the way from the ocean up to Augusta, Maine.

WATTS: Yeah, it’s fresh water but we still have a four-foot tidal effect in Augusta. Below here it’s more of a deeper – it’s more of an estuary, which is a nice nursery are for fish, but they have to get above the head of tide to spawn. And now with Edwards out we’ve got a 20 mile run of river above the head of tide, which, for the next few decades, is big enough to allow these fish stocks to come back, at least to regain a foothold so they’re not almost going extinct. So I think that gives us time – and I say us, I mean people – gives people time to consider what the options are going to be for the next 20 years. It’s quite possible that in 20 years people are going to say, you know, maybe we should get rid of some more of these dams. Maybe they won’t.

CURWOOD: Doug Watts is the director of Friends of Kennebec Salmon. We reached him in Augusta, Maine. Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

WATTS: Thank you, sir.



Virginia Dept. of Game & Inland fisheries

Matilija Coalition

Matilija Dam Removal Feasibility Study


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