Dams in the US in need of repair

Today’s New York Times has a very interesting article detailing some of the challenges of aging dam infrastructure in the US.  Dams are a mixed blessing.  They can provide enormous benefits through flood control, renewable energy, regulation of flow for barge traffic to get agricultural commodities to market, recreation, and water for agricultural irrigation during the hottest time of year.  All of these benefits are, of course, at significant habitat costs.

Most dams were built long before there was any recognition that habitat and fish passage are extremely important to the food web.  After passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 (that’s right, under the Nixon administration) and other environmental protection laws a new industry was born:  restoration.  According to BenDor et al from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, today restoration is about $10.6 billion a year industry.  The analysis defines the employment multiplier of restoration and mitigation investment at 10.4 – 39.7 jobs generated per million dollars invested.  That’s pretty amazing considering the same metric for the oil and gas industry is estimated at 5.3 jobs/million invested (Pollin et. al. 2009).

So, there’s money in restoration.  It creates significant employment.  It enhances the food web.  It protects resources for future generations…what’s not to like.

It’s expensive. That’s what.

Over the course of many years, the true cost of habitat degradation has been incorporated into some industries that benefit from dams.  The Bonneville Power Administration, for example, has a vice-president for Environment, Fish and Wildlife that is on the same level in the organization’s structure as the VP of operations.  BPA has the largest fish and wildlife protection program in the country.  Lorraine Bodi, who holds the VP of Environment job, calls BPA the Bonneville Power and Fish Administration.  A portion of every power bill goes toward funding habitat research, monitoring, evaluation and restoration as mitigation for the habitat degradation caused by hydropower dams in the Columbia River Basin.

While this is a stellar example of full costing, not all industries that benefit from dams have achieved this.  A recent example is the twenty-one mile dam, which is on private land in Northern Nevada.  When it broke on earlier this month flood waters caused havoc with rail transportation and flooded homes in Montello, NV.  Presumably, the dam was in place to support agriculture in this very arid part of the country.  One way to fully cost dams would be to require liability insurance for potential flood risk if dams fail or break.

There are a number of old, inundated dams throughout the west that serve no beneficial purpose at all.  They provide no electricity, flood control, or flow regulation.    They have failed due to lack of maintenance and neglect.  They only degrade habitat.  An example of this type of failed dam is Searsville Dam on the Stanford campus.  Inundation of the reservoir behind the 123 year old structure from upstream sediments is estimated at 2.7 million cubic yards.  The estimated to cost of addressing Searsville is $100 million.  This is a tiny fraction of the liability associated with flooding thousands of multi-million dollar residences downstream of the dam.  There is no reason for these dams to remain in place.  Owners should be required to remove them to restore natural flows to the rivers and streams.  If the full cost of these dams, including eventual removal, were included in the price of the products and services these dams once enabled removing them would be much more financially attainable.

Freshwater Map can provide the data collection and analysis required for safe dam removal.  It is the first step on the path to restoring riverine habitat.