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Why you should give a damn about America’s dams

This summer’s unprecedented floods across the U.S. highlight how a massive piece of infrastructure — the nation’s 90,000-plus dams — can play the role of hero or villain in these climate-enhanced calamities.

In Vermont, the 90-year-old Wrightsville Dam, built in response to the Great Flood of 1927 that killed 84 people, did its job, preventing flooding in the state capitol of Montpelier from getting far worse. But over in New York, the Jennings Pond dam, declared “unsafe” by the Army Corps of Engineers more than 40 years ago, breached, causing flood waters to inundate the Adirondack tourist town of Long Lake. Meanwhile, flash floods resulted in five deaths in southeastern Pennsylvania, closed highways and devastated crops in western Kentucky and southern Illinois, and wreaked havoc in southern California. Three years ago, Michigan saw two dams fail, in the wake of massive rains and a lack of investment in critical upgrades. And in 2017, 200,000 people were evacuated downstream of California’s massive Oroville Dam when flood waters, combined with design and construction weaknesses, resulted in a $1 billion repair bill.

In the arid western states, drought rather than floods often causes dams to make the news. Colorado River reservoirs supply drinking water to 40 million people in seven states but face increasing challenges — and decreasing water levels — with a multi-year drought across the region. And dams serve other roles — navigation, irrigation, recreation and, of course, electricity generation. Just 2,300 U.S. dams — less than 3 percent of the U.S. total — produce about 30 percent of U.S. renewable electricity and provide about 90 percent of the nation’s utility-scale electricity storage capacity for wind, solar and nuclear power through the technology known as “pumped storage hydropower.”

At the same time, many American dams and their reservoirs have degraded water quality, altered water temperature and blocked fish migration. Significantly reduced fish populations also prevent tribal nations from practicing their fishing and cultural traditions as promised in treaties with the U.S. Critically, some dams have outlived their useful lives and need to be removed, thereby increasing public safety and enhancing the watersheds and floodplains important in managing the increased precipitation driven by climate change.

There is good news on the dam front that could help with the next flood, drought, ecological challenge or renewable energy response to climate change. After more than 100 years of conflict between conservationists and dam builders — going all the way back to the epic battle over damming California’s Hetch Hetchy Valley — the parties have launched a historic collaboration that’s making headlines (per the New York Times: “Environmentalists and Dam Operators, at War for Years, Start Making Peace.”)

The parties, convened by Stanford University’s Uncommon Dialogue program and led by American Rivers and the National Hydropower Association, came together to address the “3Rs” of U.S. dams: rehabilitate some for safety; retrofit some for power; and remove some non-powered dams for conservation and safety. The parties developed a detailed $63 billion 3Rs infrastructure investment plan and secured more than $2.3 billion in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill, a significant down payment on the 3Rs plan. 

Congress now needs to take the next steps to increase dam safety, boost clean energy deployment and enhance ecological systems across the nation. At the top of the list is the bipartisan 21st Century Dams Act, which would invest billions of dollars more in the implementation of the 3Rs plan. Also critical is reforming the hydropower licensing process, which would address the cost and delays that bog down hydropower projects while also speeding up the decommissioning process for removing hydropower dams. With more than thirty percent of all hydropower licenses in the country set to expire by 2030, it’s time to reform these processes so we can both maintain this important energy source and improve river health.

We also hope Congress will move the bipartisan National Dam Safety Act to address safety issues through grants, research, training and the National Inventory of Dams. Finally, Congress needs to enact a bipartisan 3Rs infrastructure tax credit, championed by Sen. Cantwell and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, which would help advance environmental improvements, dam safety and the removal of obsolete dams.

This summer’s floods are yet another sign that we have to get our act together when it comes to addressing the causes and effects of climate change. River advocates are working collaboratively with the hydropower industry and tribal nations to advance a historic, multifaceted plan to tackle the challenges and opportunities posed by the nation’s dams. Now it’s time for Congress to act.

Dan Reicher is a Senior Scholar at Stanford’s Doerr School of Sustainability. Tom Kiernan is CEO of American Rivers. Malcolm Woolf is CEO of the National Hydropower Association. 

Tags Congress Dams Drought Energy Environment flooding hydropower Renewable energy River Water