Removal of Non-Power Generating Dams on the Connecticut River

Raquel Gayle, Building and Construction Tech, B.S.
Cameron Young, Natural Resources Conservation, B.S.
Jesse Armfield, Geology, B.S.

People living near a body of water or in low lying areas acknowledge the likelihood of flooding and understand its risks. What many people are unaware of is the possibility of flash flooding due to dam failure. Catastrophic dam failure can destroy bridges, homes, and take human lives. Just this year, flooding in South Carolina caused 13 dam failures that lead to 17 deaths and destruction of property (Smith, 2015, p.1). Tragedies like this can be avoided by taking down dams that are not necessary for energy generation. Due to public safety concerns and declining migratory fish populations, a government grant should fund the removal of small non-hydroelectric dams in the Connecticut River watershed.
The inability for private dam owners to maintain their dams is a major safety issue in the United States. Improperly maintained dams are a threat to public safety due to the elevated risk of failure. Dams become unsafe because maintenance and repair is unaffordable for most private dam owners. Of the 84,000 dams in the country, over 57,500 of them are privately owned (Silva et. al, 2009, p.3). Over 4,400 of dams nationwide are considered to be unsafe, many of which are privately owned (Silva et. al, 2009, p.3). In the United States it would cost over 36 billion dollars to fix or upgrade non-federally owned dams to modern safety standards (Silva et. al, 2009, p. 9). The average cost of repairing or upgrading a dam to a safe level is over $440,000 (Silva et. al, 2009, p.3). Dam maintenance is far too expensive for most private dam owners due to the cost. This leads to numerous private unmaintained dams across the country which degrade over time and pose a risk to the public. There is a lack of federal and state funding to assist private dam owners in maintaining or upgrading their dam (Silva et. al, 2009). Since funds are not available for private dam owners many dams go without necessary maintenance. Dam safety is an issue in this country that is not properly addressed, and the number of dam failures and accidents from 2005 to 2009 make it apparent. From 2005 to 2009 there were 132 dam failures and 566 reported accidents across the country (Silva et. al, 2009). It is likely that more dam accidents occurred than were actually reported (Silva et. al, 2009). Historically, the United States only takes action to improve dam safety after tragic events such as the two dam failures in Pennsylvania in 1913 that took 2,300 lives (Silva et. al, 2009).
The time to improve a system is not after it fails. If funds are appropriated to remove private dams before they fail lives and property can be saved. It is fairly obvious that removing small non-hydroelectric generating dams would increase public safety. Generally the United States public is more concerned with the costs of dam removal rather than the safety issues associated with the current situation. Hydroelectric producing dams commonly receive repairs and upgrades because they are profitable, subjected to strict government regulation, and their owners want to keep them running (Holyoke Dam Personnel, personal communication, 2006). Because hydroelectric dams get frequent upgrades, they are not generally a threat to public safety. Therefore we are advocating to remove non-power generating dams. The average cost of repairing or upgrading a dam to a safe level is over $440,000 in the United States (Silva et. al, 2009). Because over ⅔ of dams in the United States belong individuals and private businesses and the costs of dam maintenance is very high many dams are left at risk (Silva et. al, 2009). Since so many dams belong to non-federal entities there needs to be a system in place to ensure safety can be maintained. Estimates made in 2009 determined that 16 billion dollars are needed to repair the nation’s most critical dams, dams that pose a danger to human life (Silva et. al, 2009). Due to the sheer cost of dam maintenance, a cost that perpetuates and increases as time passes, we are advocating for the removal of small non-hydroelectric generating dams in the Connecticut River Watershed. In a 1999 nationwide study the average cost of removing a dam was about $210,000, a value later adjusted to 2001 dollars (Chrisholm,1999). In this report there were only 3 dams that cost more to deconstruct than the average dam costs to repair in Silva et. al (2009) (Chrisholm, 1999). Based on sheer numbers, it is clear that dam removal makes much more fiscal sense than dam maintenance or upgrades. Not only does removing dams make more fiscal sense than dam maintenance, but it also permanently increases public safety. If dams that are degrading due to high maintenance cost are removed the possibility of dam failure is eliminated. When dams are removed, the perpetuating cycle of repair and maintenance is eliminated, which has the potential to funds in the long run.
Opponents to the removal of dams in the Connecticut River Watershed are concerned about the dams that are necessary to prevent flooding, which is the reason why many of these dams were constructed. However, only 24 dams out of the thousands in the watershed are currently being used for flood control (Connecticut River Watershed Council, 2015). Only 16 dams in the main body of the river are for hydroelectricity. Many of the dams in the watershed have also been breached. (Connecticut River Watershed Council, 2015)
Removing these economically unimportant dams in the Connecticut River watershed will also enrich local communities through jobs and volunteering opportunities, and was proven to do so in other regions of the United States. Klamath, California decided to remove dams and created 1,400 dam removal jobs, and 333 post-removal jobs in commercial fishing, sport fishing, fisheries, water programs, regulatory assurance, and tribal programs. (Tam, 2011, By the Numbers) Tam (2011) says, “Proponents said the plan protects and enhances a natural resource that is worth more than $750 million a year to the local economy.” (para. 8). In the Connecticut River’s case, jobs will be created to remove the dams, which is labor intensive. Jobs can also be created post-removal, such as fishery or sport fishing jobs once the fish supply is replenished and even historical education jobs or volunteering organizations. The Connecticut River is one of 14 American Heritage Rivers, which provides a lot of opportunity for historical education, which could have volunteer positions. Creating jobs through the removal of these dams will enrich the local economy if local residents take the jobs and then spend their money in the area. The only downside of removing the dams in Klamath, California was the loss of 14 whitewater boating jobs. However, the job gains from removing the dams through the growth of sport fishing and other activities were larger than the whitewater boating job losses.
Dams without fish ladders or other fish passage mechanisms inhibit movement of fish throughout their range. Dams constructed in the 1800’s reduced or eliminated spawning runs almost entirely (Hogg et. al, 2015). This problem is most apparent in species of anadromous fish like the Atlantic salmon that are native to the Connecticut River watershed. The elimination of these spawnings run throughout the course of several centuries. They negatively affected sport fishing, recreation, and the overall viability of the Connecticut River ecosystem. Hogg et. al (2015) examined the changes in fish species composition and habitat use upstream of two small-scale dams following their removal in 2009. In order to determine that the stream habitat has been successfully restored, fish passage must be unimpeded and native species must be able to access habitat within their historical ranges. Hogg et. al. (2015) sampled fish populations upstream of the dams for two years following completion of the removal projects. Through the use of electrofishing, the authors were able to confirm that anadromous species such as the Atlantic salmon and alewife successfully reproduced and repopulated upstream stretches of the river system that they had been denied access to for centuries, indicating that dam removal had restored the system back to its original state. A study on small-scale dam removal done by Kornis et. al. (2015) also indicated that the removal of dams would increase the ability of native fish species to access historical habitat. Fish migration and populations are healthier when dams are removed because they have access to much more river system space and historic breeding grounds.
There are numerous historical commissions throughout the Northeast that advocate for the preservation of certain dams that people believe to be historically significant and aesthetically pleasing. The historical commission in Northampton, Massachusetts attempted to save the Upper Roberts Meadow Dam (Serreze, 2015). The Upper Roberts Meadow Dam was built in 1883 to make a reservoir for drinking water but it no longer serves the city (Serreze, 2015). The Upper Roberts Meadow Dam is made of large granite blocks and the local historical commission feels the construction was an engineering feat (Serreze, 2015).
In terms of historical significance, the salmon runs of the Connecticut River valley provided a vital food source for early colonists, pre-dating the construction of dams (C.C, 1996). According to some accounts, the salmon were so abundant that “early colonists could walk across the backs of the fish as they ran up the rivers”(C.C, 1996). The construction of dams in the post-colonial era decimated the salmon population of the Connecticut River and today they are nearly extinct (C.C, 1996). The historical commission should consider these factors when determining the historical significance of the dam. If the historical commission is concerned with restoring the area to historical accuracy, there should be no dam.
In 2010, the Northampton Board of Public Works voted to remove the dam due to pressure from the Massachusetts Office of Dam Safety (Serreze, 2015). Since the dam is old and in need of repair, the Massachusetts Office of Dam Safety pressured the Northampton Board of Public Works to remove it to improve public safety.
As potentially devastating as dam failures are to public safety, the damage they do to the ecosystems they reside in has been present since the day they were constructed. The dams inhibit nutrient flow throughout river systems negatively impacting assemblages of native species (Hogg. et. al 2015). In many instances the effects of these man-made obstacles resulted in pseudo-extinctions, preventing anadromous fish species from moving upstream and eradicating them from large swaths of their native range (Hogg et. al. 2015). The Connecticut River is named one of 14 American Heritage Rivers, and part of that reason is because of the species that live in the river (Connecticut River Watershed Council, 2015). These unnecessary dams hurt the species that are historically native to these waters, which is in turn erasing some of the Connecticut River’s heritage.
Dams cause environmental issues in addition to possibly threatening public safety. Environmental issues caused by dams are generally brushed under the rug because of the cost associated with removing dams. Dams cause sediment to build up and impede fish migration. Dams generally pool water. Pooled water slows down and allows both silt and clay particles to settle into thick deposits (Marshak, 2007). This may not seem detrimental, but clay and silt particles hold high concentrations of heavy metals that can add up over the years and become toxic to ecosystems surrounding a dam (Young & Ishiga, 2014).When rivers are allowed to flow naturally, the silt and clay particles are washed out to the ocean and rivers are not poisoned by heavy metals (Young & Ishiga, 2014). When the particles are washed out to the ocean, they settle in the deep ocean where the lack of oxygen prevents most life from thriving regardless of heavy metal concentrations (Marshak, 2007). When a dam is removed, there is a large pulse of silt and clay rich sediment that is washed down the river to the ocean in only a few years (Tullos et al. 2014). In Tullos et al. (2014), the removals of two small dams resulted in ecological recovery to historical conditions within only two years. Washing deposits of almost entirely fine grained material down river reduces heavy metal concentrations in rivers (Young & Ishiga, 2014). Restored ecology around deconstructed dam sites is an additional benefit of removing dams instead of repairing them.
Improperly maintained private dams are a public safety hazard and negatively impact ecosystems while offering few other benefits. Due to public safety concerns and declining migratory fish populations, a government grant should fund the removal of small non-hydroelectric dams in the Connecticut River watershed. The removal of the dams will improve public safety, quality of the environment, and enrich the local community. Despite public perception, removing a dam is usually less expensive than repairing it. It’s been proven through science that removing these dams can prevent deaths and damage to property while positively impacting the ecosystem of the river. The dam failure tragedies in South Carolina just this year are evidence that our stagnant policy about dams needs to change. The dam failures resulted in the deaths of at least 17 people in addition to the closure of 269 roads and 137 bridges (Smith, 2015, p.1). It is clear that the government needs to intervene to improve public safety and environmental quality.


C., C. (1996). The [In]Significance of Atlantic Salmon. History Through a Pinhole, 8(3), 1-1. Retrieved November 25, 2015, from Common Ground Archaeology and Ethnography in the Public Interest.
Flood Control Dams in the Connecticut River Watershed. (n.d.). Retrieved November 25, 2015, from
Connecticut Watershed Council, Watershed Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved November 25, 2015, from
Chrisholm, I. (1999, December 1). Dam Removal Success Stories. Retrieved November 8, 2015, from
Hogg, R. S., Coghlan, S. M.,Jr, Zydlewski, J., & Gardner, C. (2015). Fish community response to a small-stream dam removal in a maine coastal river tributary. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, 144(3), 467-479. doi:
Kibler, K., Tullos, D. & Kondolf, M (2011). Evolving expectations of dam removal outcomes; downstream geomorphic effects following removal of a small, gravel-filled dam. Journal of the American Water Resources Association, 47(2), 408-423. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-1688.2011.00523.x
Marshak, S. (2007). Essentials of geology (2nd ed.). New York: W.W. Norton.
Serreze, M. (2015, March 30). Friends of doomed 1883 dam in Northampton urge intervention by Historical Commission. Mass Live, p. 1.
Silva, R., Galloway, M., Ritchey, J., Smith, K., Kula, J., & Ditchey, E. (2009). The Cost of Rehabilitating Our Nation’s Dams. Retrieved November 8, 2015.
Smith, T. (2015, October 7). More dam failures raise questions; death toll climbs. Retrieved November 8, 2015.
Tam, D., (2011, September 22). Klamath restoration studies support dam removal; project would create jobs, increase chinook harvest. Retrieved November 8, 2015.
Young, S. M., & Ishiga, H. (2014). Environmental change of the fluvial-estuary system in relation to arase dam removal of the yatsushiro tidal flat, SW kyushu, japan. Environmental Earth Sciences, 72(7; 7), 2301-2314. doi:10.1007/s12665-014-3139-3



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