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Same River Twice: Restoration Politics, Water Policy, and Dam Removal


Dam removal is a new and rapidly growing phenomenon that is reshaping watersheds across the United States; nearly 600 dams were removed from American rivers 1999-2012. Dam removal restores natural flows of water, material, and wildlife upstream, downstream, and out across the floodplain. Despite this massive restorative impact, it is politically controversial, reshaping familiar landscapes and challenging traditional economies and the communities that depended upon them. American dams are aging - 85% of them will be past their useful lives by 2020 - and it is likely that many more will be removed in the future. In this work, I examine the politics of dam removal as well as its impacts on rivers, performing case studies of three major dam removals in one of the United States' removal hotspots, the West Coast. The primary restoration target in this region is populations of Pacific salmon and sea-going trout (genus Oncorhynchus), which were historically enormous but are now largely endangered.

The 47-foot Marmot Dam was removed from Oregon's Sandy River in 2007, the 39-foot Savage Rapids Dam came out of Oregon's Rogue River in 2009, and the Elwha/Glines Canyon complex, 105 and 210 feet tall, started to be removed from the Elwha River, Washington, in 2011. Each of these dams was functional and economically productive when it was removed. I analyzed the political frames, venue shopping, and advocacy coalition dynamics of each case. In each case, the most challenging political frame was the cultural role of the dam and reservoir, which had long provided ancillary recreational and scenic benefits to the public - the community saw the artificial lake as their natural landscape. The policy subsystem governing dam removal is broad and evolving, so stakeholders found useful political venues in many places. Ultimately, it was necessary for each group of stakeholders to form a mega-coalition, wherein nearly every interest group worked together to seek a united solution. It was necessary to go to the federal government or to create new inclusive venues to accomplish this and to fund the dam removal. In the cases of the Savage Rapids and Elwha Dams, the political process took decades and was challenged by many bitter clashes between stakeholders. In the case of the Marmot Removal, an efficient and amicable solution was reached in less than five years, setting an example for future dam removal project.

There have been dozens of dam removals on the West Coast, costing many millions of dollars, but there has been scanty attention paid to their effectiveness for restoring salmonid populations. I assessed these removals' effectiveness in restoring these fishes' access to upstream habitat, and found that while formerly-excluded salmonids do recolonize upstream habitat in most cases, there has been little consistent monitoring of these projects. Monitoring is particularly problematic for dams that provided upstream passage prior to removal - such cases require baseline data to assess the effectiveness of dam removal, but baselines are rarely established, and in most of these cases success is impossible to prove.

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