Surveys show support for Nelson Dam removal and tips on talking about dams

Nelson Dam

Nelson Dam, a century-old concrete structure that outlived its usefulness, spans the Naches River in Yakima, Washington. It blocks fish passage for much of the year and presents safety risks for the City of Yakima.

After years of planning, Nelson Dam is coming down this fall.

Earlier this year, when the dam’s fate was still in question, I conducted two studies, sponsored by Resources Legacy Fund, about Nelson Dam issues. The surveys are part of an effort to create public opinion baselines in a small set of Western watersheds where Open Rivers Fund is active, so we can track how opinions about dam removal and river restoration are changing in these communities over time. The surveys can also be used to help advocates and others understand how best to reach communities on these issues.

For one study, I interviewed twenty community leaders in Yakima, with conversations lasting 20 to 35 minutes. Among the key findings:

  • Dam removal does not need to be divisive. When it became clear the interview would be about a dam removal, nearly all participants bristled. But when we talked specifically about Nelson Dam, support for removal was near universal. A key takeaway: focusing discussion on a specific dam appears more productive than a conversation about dam removal generally. Also, many interviewees didn’t think of Nelson as a dam but as a diversion or a spillway, suggesting that alternative descriptive terms may invite more productive discussions.
  • Agricultural interests are paramount. A big reason why leaders favored Nelson Dam removal was their understanding that it was supported by local agriculture. The takeaway: understand the importance of building local support from landowners, ranchers, and/or farmers.
  • Opportunities to build on alliances. Latinx leaders expressed some opposition to the dam removal, saying City funds would be better spent improving parks and other facilities in Yakima’s poor neighborhoods. But those leaders also talked about trust they had built with Yakama Nation leaders on census and redistricting issues. A key takeaway: the messenger matters when building support for river restoration. For example, Yakama Nation leaders are likely more effective messengers with Yakima’s Latinx community in making the case for dam removal benefits.

For the second study, I conducted online surveys – in English and Spanish – of Yakima residents. Among the key findings:

  • Yakima residents respect scientists and engineers. 77% agreed that scientists and engineers can accurately predict what will happen to a river when a dam is removed from it. We find it encouraging that residents show relatively strong support for the often complicated design and planning that goes into dam removal and river restoration.
  • They believe solutions exist. 95% agreed smart planning can help the Yakima community meet the water needs of families, farms, and fish. There may be opportunities for unity on river issues.
  • Spanish and English speakers have different priorities. Spanish speakers reported the biggest benefit of dam removal would be reduced flooding, while English speakers identified healthier conditions for salmon as the leading benefit. Spanish speakers said water pollution is the biggest future threat to the region’s salmon while English speakers identified warming water temperatures as the biggest threat.

I shared these results with leaders of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, a coordinated effort to rebuild salmon stocks in the entire Yakima Basin. It led to a lively discussion, with a particular interest in how English and Spanish speakers tie dam removal issues to the threats and challenges facing their respective communities.

Not every dam removal project can accommodate the time and resources for surveys of public opinion. But diverse participation and deep listening are vital tools in the effort to build consensus and rally around common goals.