Efforts to remove dams may get a big boost as Congress considers record-setting appropriations for national programs that promote the removal of aging structures to improve fish passage.
Earlier this year, the Bush administration proposed $6 million for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new “Open Rivers Initiative,” a grant program unveiled last year as the government’s first-ever program specifically aimed at supporting dam removals.
In a lesser-noticed move, the administration in its proposed 2007 budget also sought an additional $10 million for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program (WHIP), which would be specifically targeted to support dam removal and fish passage projects.
Both programs have been working their way through the Congressional appropriations process. Nationwide, more than 2 million obsolete dams—many only a few feet high—act as barriers to fish migration.
The initiatives could be a boon in the Bay region, where interest in dam removals has been growing. In Pennsylvania alone, as many as 30 dams may come out this year, and another half dozen could come out of rivers in Maryland and Virginia. Officials say the new funding could accelerate efforts in future years.
NOAA’s Open Rivers Program is aimed primarily at dams that block ocean-dwelling fish such as shad, herring and striped bass from reaching their historical freshwater spawning territory. “We see removal of obsolete dams and other barriers as an additional tool in conserving and restoring our fish populations,” NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., said last year in announcing the program.
The WHIP money could also help fund those projects, but additionally may be used to support dam removals in upstream areas where the beneficiaries might be trout, rather than spawning ocean fish.
“WHIP really does offer some freedom,” said David Gagner, chief of staff for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which oversees the program. “The hope is to start getting more streams running.”
While WHIP has been used for dam removal projects in the past, including some in Pennsylvania, it would be the first time that extra money was included in the program’s funding specifically for that purpose.
Gagner said the hope is that the money would help leverage funding from other programs and from conservation groups, such as American Rivers and Trout Unlimited, which are active in dam removals. “If we can match some of those dollars up, it would be a big deal,” he said.
Federal money has been available for dam removals in the past, but those funds have come from smaller pots of money which were often used for multiple purposes. The new money could help step up the pace of dam removals both around the nation and in the Bay watershed.
Dam removals have increasingly become the preferred way to open rivers for fish. Even the best fish ladders are not as effective as an open river—plus, they require ongoing maintenance. Dam removals are cheaper than fish passage. In Pennsylvania, the average cost of dam removal is $30,000. The average cost of a fish passages is $35,000 per vertical foot.
Improving fish passage has long been a major goal of the Bay Program. Chesapeake tributaries are clogged with thousands of dams—no exact number is available—and until the remains of Embrey Dam on the Rappahannock were fully removed last year, there was no free-flowing river between the Bay and the mountains.
A recent Bay Program goal calling for opening an additional 1,000 miles of rivers to migratory fish called for emphasizing programs that “favor dam removals as opposed to structural fish passages, where practical.”
Scott Carney, who oversees Pennsylvania’s dam removal program for the state’s Fish and Boat Commission, said the new federal money could be a boost for the state, which leads the nation in dam removals and has a waiting list of more than 100 dams waiting to be pulled out. “We’ll tap into that as well,” he said.
Carney said the state funds the removals “anyway we can scrounge funds up and put a project together.” Most projects use small amounts of funding from multiple sources.
Many obsolete dams are a century or more old, and no longer have clear owners, so public sources of funding are often required for their removal.