Dam Removal: Often the Smartest, Safest Investment

Last November, a century-old dam on Kentucky’s Green River partially failed. While fortunately not posing safety risks, the partial failure freed eight river miles through Mammoth Cave National Park.

The dam long had been targeted for removal, so the surprise failure may be a blessing in the long run. But a gentle, risk-free slide from obsolete to failing is not likely with our nation’s other aging dams.

Decrepit, unsafe dams often no longer provide economic benefits and are more expensive to maintain than they are worth — while also threatening communities across the country. Removing obsolete dams could be a popular and smart cornerstone of the new Administration’s wide-ranging infrastructure improvement program.

Nationally, more than two million dams exist to control flooding, irrigate crops, provide community water supplies, and produce hydropower. Many continue to function well and provide vital services to communities and industries.

Many dams, however, have outlived their original purpose and no longer power mills, provide water for agriculture, or produce cost-effective power for nearby towns.

Today the average U.S. dam is more than 50 years old. As this infrastructure ages, deterioration, maintenance requirements, and repair costs accelerate. Rehabilitation of a typical non-federal dam today ranges from $100,000 to millions of dollars. In many cases, it may be less expensive to simply remove a dam, particularly when it is providing minimal benefits.

Concerns about dam safety also are growing as this infrastructure deteriorates. As of 2013, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported that 10,856 state-regulated dams across all 50 states were rated as High Hazard Potential, indicating that failure would likely cause loss of life.

According to a 2016 report by Headwaters Economics, the costs of removing certain dams may be far outweighed by the benefits:

  • Removing deteriorating dams improves public safety. In many cases, residential and business areas have grown up around dams originally built in outlying areas. The consequences of dam failure are much higher today.
  • Dam removal creates jobs – not only the engineering and construction jobs required to carefully take apart and remove the structure, but longer-term jobs in environmental engineering and river restoration. Removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams in Washington State in 2012 created an estimated 760 new jobs and contributed $33 million to personal income in the region.
  • Many dams block fish access to historical spawning grounds and habitats. Removal often results in the return of recreationally and commercially important fish such as salmon and steelhead in Washington and river herring and alewife in Maine. Improved fisheries and catch rates yield increased revenue for local economies.
  • Removing dams can improve watershed ecosystems. After dam removal, researchers have documented more robust plants and animals in upper watersheds and estuaries, improved water quality, and increased numbers and diversity of fish.
  • Dam removal projects can attract new investments and spark outdoor recreation. Sections of Maine’s Penobscot River have become boating destinations and attracted new tourism dollars since removal of two dams in 2012 and 2013.
  • Communities downstream from deteriorating dams can avoid massive cleanup costs by prudent removal of obsolete dams before they fail. In 1972, the failure of South Dakota’s Canyon Lake Dam destroyed 1,335 homes, and cost more than $60 million in damages.
  • Removal of inefficient and deteriorating hydropower dams saves ratepayers money. Electricity produced by the Edwards Dam in Maine cost four to five times the market rate when the dam was removed in 1999.

Aging infrastructure is a high priority of the new administration. Identifying and removing obsolete dams while providing local jobs and increased recreation in communities adjacent to our nation’s bountiful rivers and streams is a win-win proposition.


Megan Lawson is an economist with Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont.

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