The Science of River Restoration

Open Rivers Fund follows a path carved, in large part, by the current scientific understanding of river health.

Thanks to decades of dam removal data, scientists and engineers can increasingly predict what will happen when a dam is removed. The hydraulics of dam removal are well understood.

The greater scientific challenge, at this point, is in better understanding how river biology changes when barriers, large and small, are removed from rivers and streams.

To this end, Open Rivers Fund supports projects and organizations conducting research on river conditions before and after removal. Longitudinal data is best for assessing change, but even a single baseline survey is a valuable starting point.

We respect and support the work of Native American Tribes in restoring rivers and watersheds. Traditional Ecological Knowledge practiced by Indigenous communities for millennia is an important strategy for restoring river life.

5 people standing at the base of a dam at Eklutna, evaluating its removal
Citizen scientists in Missoula help monitor Rattlesnake Creek as dam removal re-opens historic habitat.

Citizen Science Benefits Rivers and Communities

Multiple Open Rivers Fund projects involve investments in citizen science efforts to monitor river conditions, boost community understanding of science, and build community support. Growth in this field is important – and remarkable.

Local organizations are successfully engaging volunteers of varying levels of scientific knowledge and experience: scientists with advanced degrees, high school students, seniors, and all kinds of people in between. At the outset of any citizen science project, volunteers are developing processes and protocols to ensure accurate data is collected and analyzed in formats sharable with regulators and the public. In many cases, data quality standards are ratcheting upward.

Monitoring river conditions can be expensive. Volunteer citizen scientists expand the capacity to collect valuable data and document change following dam removal. As importantly, this work can create a lifelong connection to the river and the life it supports. Citizen scientists on the river often become life-long advocates for river health.


Below are links to studies, reports, manuals, and other documents that advance the science of dam removal and river restoration.

Establishment of terrestrial mammals: Elwah River dam removal

Following removal of two large dams on the Elwah River (Washington, U.S.), scientists used camera traps to examine seasonal use of two former reservoir beds by the mammalian community. Their presence can shape ecosystem recovery, signal restoration of ecosystem function, and influence food web dynamics and nutrient transfer.

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Patterns, drivers, and a predictive model of dam removal cost in the United States

Scientists have analyzed more than 650 dam removal projects over 55 years in the United States totaling $1.52 billion inflation-adjusted dollars to develop a tool to better estimate the cost of future dam removals.

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Decision‐Support Framework for Dam Removal Planning

Given the several thousand dam removals expected over the coming decades, a systematic approach to plan future dam removals holds potential for aligning and delivering multiple benefits. This research presents a decision-support framework to prioritize dam removals based on opportunistic factors, hydro-ecological variables, and socio-cultural considerations.

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Facilitating Tribal Co-Management of Federal Public Lands

This paper responds to calls from environmental advocacy organizations and Tribes to explore the obstacles of Tribal co-management on federal lands and propose solutions.

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Environmental DNA is an effective tool to track recolonizing migratory fish following large-scale dam removal

This study uses environmental DNA (eDNA) to assess the effectiveness of dam removal to restore fish passage on the Elwha River in Washington State.

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Manual for community science and dam removal

Produced by the UC Davis Center for Community and Citizen Science, this manual is written specifically for citizen science efforts linked to dam removal and watershed restoration.

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USGS Dam Removal Portal

A tool to explore trends about dam removal science and query scientific studies that evaluate environmental response to dam removals.

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Every Tribe Has A Wound, Can Tribal Government-to-Government Consultation Help Mend It?

Thought-provoking reflections on the historical and legal underpinnings of government-to-government Tribal consultations and their importance in advancing the environmental conservation efforts of Tribes and healing from historical inequity.

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Indigenous Systems of Management for Resilient Pacific Salmon Fisheries

Through generations of interdependence with salmon, Indigenous Peoples developed sophisticated systems of management. These systems and practices showcase pathways for sustained productivity and resilience in contemporary salmon fisheries.

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Dam Removal and River Restoration

This paper discusses dam removal by focusing on the importance of rivers as providers of vital ecosystem services like food, energy, and water. Dams are the most prevalent agents of change to the world’s rivers. The vast majority of the world’s estimated 16 million dams are relatively small, less than 10 meters in height.

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Elevating Freshwater Ecosystems in 30x30

The impairment of California’s freshwater ecosystems not only places native freshwater species at a higher risk of extinction compared to their terrestrial counterparts, it also threatens the valuable ecosystem services and cultural resources that freshwater ecosystems provide.

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Reconnecting the Elwha River: Spatial Patterns of Fish Response to Dam Removal

The removal of two large dams on the Elwha River was completed in 2014 with a goal of restoring anadromous salmonid populations. Using observations from ongoing field studies, this paper compiles a timeline of migratory fish passage upstream of each dam.

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