All Dams Will Die

By Olivia Deans

Destruction by Hydropower Dams

“We erect dams assuming that they are eternal, as if they’ll never topple over or be dismantled or fill with sediment or lose their financial rational. Yet all dams will die.” The United States once rapidly built hydropower dams that fractured the large and small river systems of the county. In the United States, dam development was driven by political desire to develop and settle the western region of the country. Decades later the environmental and communities across the U.S. feel the negative effects of the hydropower dams. It is time for the U.S. to re-evaluate the necessity of dams and move towards a policy of dam decommissioning. The U.S. needs to be a key player in advocating for alternative energy development in other countries so that dam construction and policy mistakes will not continue to destroy the world’s critical ecosystems.

Dams, large and small, create sever negative effects to the environment. In the U.S., large dams have led to loss of forests, wildlife habitat, species, biodiversity, fisheries, wetlands, riverine ecosystems, fresh water, and water quality. Ecosystem destruction does not stop at aquatic ecosystems. Dam project negatively affect terrestrial ecosystems as well. Many species prefer valley bottoms, so construction of storage dam and reservoir areas kills terrestrial plants and animals and eliminates critical wildlife habitats. The problems from dams even extend to emissions of greenhouses gases from the reservoirs created. Studies estimate that emission of greenhouse gases from dam reservoirs contribute between 1%-28% of global emissions. One author writes, “[the world’s dams have shifted so much weight that geophysicists believe they have slightly altered the speed of the earth’s rotation, the tilt of its axis, and the shape of its gravitational field.”

Fish are one of the most notable species affected by hydropower dam construction and operation. Fish often need the water habitat that is located above the hydropower dams in order to spawn and reproduce. Cold water, that the fish rely upon for proper circulatory and nervous system functions, is located above the dams, and the fish are often unable to reach these areas. The United States continues to spend billions of dollars trying to mitigate fish populations disrupted by hydropower dams and have achieved little success. “Dams are, of course, loaded weapons aimed down river, pointed at ourselves: they’re proof of the gambling nature of the societies that build them.”

Overall, the negative effects of hydropower dams continue to disrupt and destroy critical ecosystems and species. The U.S. should consider ecosystems values when determining whether the economic benefits of maintaining dams outweighs the severe negative environmental and economic effects.

Authority for Removal

The first step in removing a hydropower dam is to consider whether it is a federal or private dam.

The Federal Power Act of 1920 was established to provide for a federal comprehensive planning of hydroelectric power development. The purpose of the act was to balance conflicting uses such as hydropower and wildlife preservation, to develop the “water power resources of the nation,” and “avoid unconstitutional invasion of the jurisdiction of the states.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) was established to implement the Federal Power Act under 16 U.S.C. § 792. Under 16 U.S.C. § 817, a license is needed from FERC for all hydropower facilities unless there is an existing right-of-way from before the Act was enacted. FERC generally renews hydroelectric licenses every fifty years. During this renewal project FERC will evaluate the project “completely anew” and will grant licenses “upon reasonable terms.” The Courts have interpreted the grant upon reasonable terms broadly. In the City of Tacoma case, FERC required additional environmental regulations to protect the environment and fish but made the dam economically unfeasible for the city to comply with the new regulations. The Court ruled that FERC was within its power to require such environmental regulations.

Furthermore, state statutes may also provide leverage in consideration of the environment during the renewal process. For example, in the western region, The Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act requires that FERC take into council’s actions into account at each “relevant stage” for the FERC management process. Under this Act, Federal hydropower facilities have to give fish and wildlife equal treatment, “insuring that their operations do not subordinate fish and wildlife to other process objectives.”

This process illustrates three important opportunities for environmental advocates and decision makers. First, the Federal Power Act does not give unlimited authority for hydropower renewal, but is limited by licensing terms and environmental considerations outlined in the act and subsequent amendments. Second, licensing renewal timeframe may be one of the only moments for environmental advocates to force the decision making process to consider the environment. Third, states are potentially powerful actors in hydropower dam removal by implement consideration of the environment through statutes.

Global Hydropower Dams: A Call for the U.S. to Lead in Environmental Protection and Policy

Historically hydropower dam development in the United States peaked around the 1970’s. Now the United States mainly focuses on maintaining the dams in operation. However in other areas of the world, large dams are being constructed that would destroy vital ecosystems and the communities in the area. This is a problem, particularly in developing countries, where the development does not always involve meticulous planning for safety considerations and conservation protections. Currently “two-thirds of the world’s existing dams are in developing countries.” The U.S. decisions to remove hydropower dams or discontinue some licensing would send a powerful warning to not repeat mistakes in overdevelopment of hydropower dams and warn of the negative effects from dams to ecosystems and communities.

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