Restoring rivers to restore communities
The benefits of river restoration are many, and some of those benefits are not obvious at first glance. Economic growth, enhanced safety, restored culture—these are benefits that have led local communities to take action.
Improving the health of rivers and landscapes for fish and wildlife
Rivers act like conveyor belts for sand, gravel, rock, and silt, moving materials from the headwaters downstream. Dams interfere with this essential natural process. High dams restrict migration and can ultimately be rendered useless when filled with silt. Even relatively low diversion dams change the river in important ways. Fish ladders and other mitigating structures are often ineffective. Excess sediment settles upstream from the dam, raising the river bottom, slowing flows, and increasing water temperatures. Downstream stretches are deprived of the gravel and sand necessary for spawning beds. These changes diminish downstream beaches and cause erosion of riverbanks.
Dam removal allows fish to reclaim upstream habitat. In the West, salmon, steelhead, lamprey, and other species gain access to additional spawning and rearing habitat that boost survival and reproduction rates. Eliminating sun-heated reservoirs and midstream pools reduces harmful algal blooms and invasive predators. Cooling stream temperatures can help fish cope with the ever-warmer average temperatures climate change is bringing.
Riparian habitat quickly returns along a free-flowing river, providing shelter and sustenance for endemic species—many of which disappeared when the river was dammed.
Modernizing infrastructure for safety and sustainability
While many dams prevent billions of dollars in flood damages each year, dams also can endanger the public and exacerbate flooding. As upstream sedimentation raises riverbeds, the flood risk (the likelihood of floods) and hazard (the intensity of floods) both increase. Restoring the river’s natural conditions, including its natural floodplain, can reduce the dual threats of flood risk and hazard. Equally important, when reservoirs fill in fully with silt, even a high dam may provide little to no buffer against flooding from rapid snow melt or intense storms.
Removing dams can eliminate significant liability risks. Nearly two million dams stand in rivers throughout the United States; most provide flood management, water supply, and other benefits. By 2025, 70 percent of these dams will be more than half a century old, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials; and many of them no longer serve any significant purpose. As they age over the course of decades, dams can deteriorate, and the threat of failure poses risks to downstream communities.
Dam removal also addresses the “attractive nuisance” liability issues plaguing many dam owners, particularly governmental entities. People seek out these off-limits structures and engage in high-risk behaviors, regularly causing injury, loss of life, and increased patrolling costs.
Modernizing water systems also helps sustain communities and their economies. As technology has advanced, municipal water is cleaner and can be stored and delivered more efficiently. Replacing obsolete dams with 21st century water infrastructure creates economic benefits directly—through jobs across the life of the project from planning, to deconstruction, through restoration—and then indirectly as those wages multiply in local economies.
Reclaiming ancestral lands and cultural practices
Dams have for years struck at the heart of Indigenous communities who have seen their lands dispossessed and cultural fisheries disappear from rivers. Restoring river health supports Native American Tribes, who for generations saw sustenance and tradition in the annual runs of salmon, steelhead, and other species. Tribes bring unparalleled knowledge and expertise to the restoration and stewardship of the streams, rivers, and surrounding lands that originally belonged to their ancestors. Open Rivers Fund engages local Tribes on many projects to lead the work of dam removal, river restoration, fish propagation, and monitoring. As fish populations recover and thrive, local Tribes reconnect to their cultural practices and economically benefit.
Water efficiency for ranchers, farmers and communities
Many western dams rely on 19th century approaches. For example, ranchers throughout the West annually construct temporary dams to raise the river’s elevation and divert water for irrigation during half the year. This is costly, time-consuming, water wasteful, and harmful to fish. Removing or replacing these types of dams with more modern approaches such as roughened channels leaves more water in the river (allowing for natural conditions) while still meeting the community’s irrigation and city water needs, often at less costs.
For river communities
Nearly half of the habitat once available to salmon and steelhead in the United States is now inaccessible to these fish, and many species are near extinction. As more rivers are restored and fish stocks regain their strength, it can help restore local cultures in river towns across the West. Open rivers also create new opportunities for kayaking and river rafting. This brings economic gains to river towns dependent on tourists and anglers.
The benefits can extend hundreds of miles. Salmon and steelhead spawning in headwaters streams help restore the commercial fisheries that build the economy in coastal communities.