When to give a dam? The quiet controversy of hydropower projects

Dam removal brings environmental benefits, but sometimes local communities put up a fight

Water flows around the Brown Bridge Dam dewatering structure on the Boardman River, south of Traverse City, Michigan. Plans to remove the dam went awry in 2012 when a construction accident caused a lake formed by the dam to empty in hours rather than weeks.
John L. Russell / AP

VANDERBILT, Mich. — For generations, visitors flocked for peace and quiet to this nook of tranquillity, a 45-acre lake nestled amid the lush pines of a state forest in remote Northern Michigan.

Yet the lake was far from natural. Though it had existed for as long as any living person could recall, the lake was the result of a 13-foot-tall dam, called Song of the Morning, which stood downstream on the nearby Pigeon River. By the time state authorities decided the 125-year-old dam had become a largely useless hazard that ought to be demolished, almost everybody cheered.

Plans to remove the 125-year-old Song of the Morning Dam in northern Michigan prompted opposition from a nonprofit group that owned land on the lake behind the dam.
Courtesy Huron Pines

The holdout: Golden Lotus, the owner of 800 acres — including the dam, the lake and the popular Song of the Morning yoga retreat. The nonprofit fought in court for years against a state order to remove the dam — even after a devastating 2008 breach killed 800,000 trout downstream and left the owners liable for $1.5 million in damages. In court documents and media statements, Golden Lotus repeatedly bemoaned the loss of the lake. But a settlement eventually was reached, and in October the jackhammers and backhoes arrived to undam the Pigeon.

Still, the episode reflected the challenges local communities can face even as a movement has gained traction over the past decade to demolish the seemingly eternal structures that have altered river flows for generations. 

“It’s almost never easy, even when it’s obvious the dam is causing harm and very little, if any, good,” said Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy, the associate director for river restoration with American Rivers, an environmental nonprofit. “The Song of the Morning Dam … failed three times in 50 years, and still the owners didn’t want to part with it. That shows the connection some people have and how resistant they can be to change.”

‘There’s always 10 people who have the dam in their backyard and they have a row boat tied up on a dock. They don’t want to give it up.’

John Waldman

biologist at Queens College

Thirty years ago, removing dams was typically dismissed as a radical environmentalist notion or an effort by Native American tribes to restore fish populations, their traditional food sources, which have been devastated by hydropower projects. But in the 1980s, as more of the country’s roughly 80,000 dams began to fail, knocking down the aging structures became increasingly necessary and cost-effective. The dam removal movement accelerated with the passage of a law in 1986 that required the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees dams, “to balance the environmental impact of a dam against the value of the electricity it produces” when deciding whether to renew expiring licenses.

In an increasing number of cases, the commission refused to relicense dams, especially ones that produced little hydroelectric power or no longer played important roles in water storage or farmland irrigation. The most prominent example was the Edwards Dam. The 900-foot structure was removed from the Kennebec River in Maine in 1999 after the owners and the government agreed that bringing it up to current construction standards and adding fish elevators would be more expensive than simply tearing it down. (Fish elevators are complex systems in which fish and water are artificially transported around dams in order to help fish continue their runs.)

After the Kennebec returned to its free-flowing state — for the first time since Andrew Jackson was president — salmon, herring, sturgeon and alewife populations resurged quickly, bringing credibility to the arguments of groups such as the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited and American Rivers that waterways can recover quickly after dams are removed. Eventually the local bald eagle population, which relies on the alewife for food, rebounded too, generating more positive publicity

Those early removals showed how remarkably resilient rivers are. Since then, high-profile dam removal projects have captured headlines along the Penobscot River in Maine, the Sandy River in Oregon and the Elwha River in Washington.

The Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Augusta, Maine, in 1993. It was removed six years later.
Robert F. Bukaty / AP

“They took [the Edwards Dam] down. It opened up 18 miles of habitat, and the next year, 1 million alewives showed up. Salmon and shad showed up,” said Karin Limburg, a fisheries ecologist at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. This fall, she taught a class in which she tasked her students with analyzing the potential consequences of removing the 105-foot Conowingo Dam, on the Susquehanna River in northern Maryland. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is in the process of determining the Conowingo’s future, with the power giant and dam owner Exelon fighting in court against a mandate to tear down the dam unless the company can find ways to help 800,000 shad travel past it.

Still, most of the roughly 1,000 dams removed from American rivers since 1990 — a pace that has accelerated significantly since 2007 — have been smaller projects like Song of the Morning. They were built, in some cases, to help float lumber to nearby communities or to power a mill, and the resultant bodies of water and waterfalls created by blockages of rivers were often beloved by the surrounding communities. While the dams had long since been rendered obsolete by the development of the region’s electric grid or other water storage methods, their removal nonetheless incited political and legal drama. “One of the stories about the Penobscot was that there was this old lady who said, ‘That dam is my private waterfall. Oh, I love having my waterfall,’” Limburg says of the removal of the 30-foot Veazie Dam, near Bangor, Maine.

John Waldman, a biologist at Queens College and co-author with Limburg of a study on possible uses for the land exposed when the reservoirs and lakes formed by dams are drained, agreed. “With little dams which have very little societal value in terms of hydroelectric power production or water storage or drinking or whatever, there’s always 10 people who have the dam in their backyard and they have a rowboat tied up on a dock. They don’t want to give it up.”

Figuring out how to prevent sediment and silt built up behind dams over decades from turning into a toxic mudslide is among the biggest logistical challenges of dam removal.

Excessive eagerness can also cause problems. Members of the City Council in Fremont, Ohio, have been so anxious to remove the crumbling 102-year-old Ballville Dam on the Sandusky River before it fails that they voted in early 2015 to demolish it without a clear plan for the release of about 840,000 cubic yards of sediment that has built up behind the 34-foot structure. Opponents collected enough signatures to delay the City Council decision until a referendum could be held on dam removal. In November, voters approved the dam’s takedown by a 13-point margin.

Before the vote, the Sierra Club’s Ohio chapter, typically an advocate for dam removal, sued in federal court to forestall the Sandusky’s undamming. In the suit, filed in July, the club demanded that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers force the city and state to study the impact of the sediment’s release. In October the Corps of Engineers agreed that more study is warranted, putting on hold both the lawsuit and the dam’s removal.

Jen Miller, the director of the Sierra Club’s Ohio chapter, noted that in the dam’s century of service, the river has absorbed runoff from the region’s farms as well as industrial waste. That makes study of the silt’s properties even more urgent, she said, particularly because the river feeds into Lake Erie, one of the world’s largest freshwater commercial fisheries.

“You have 100 years of nitrogen, phosphate, DDT. There was a paint thinner spill there a couple decades ago. There was benzene, all kinds of very dangerous chemicals, and it’s 18 miles from the already incredibly distressed western Lake Erie watershed,” Miller said.

Figuring out how to prevent sediment and silt built up behind dams over decades from turning into a toxic mudslide is among the biggest logistical challenges of dam removal. The water behind dams, because it’s still and shallow, is generally warmer than most river water, and the combination of a tsunami of sediment and changing water temperatures has caused high-profile fish-kill disasters. Critics still point to the 1973 removal of the Fort Edward Dam on the Hudson River near Albany, New York. The project released 2.65 million cubic yards of PCB-laden earth downstream, requiring hazardous-materials cleanup.

A similar, more recent incident has stymied dam removal in Michigan. The takedown of the Brown Bridge Dam, the first of three planned removals along the Boardman River near Traverse City, went awry in 2012 when a construction accident caused a 170-acre lake that had been formed by the dam to empty in six hours rather than three weeks as planned. Sixty-six properties were flooded or destroyed, stalling the removal of the other two dams and requiring a massive, expensive cleanup effort. “People read about that sort of thing and they think, ‘Well, I don’t want my dam to come out, because it’s going to get out of control and cause these kind of problems,’” Hollingsworth-Segedy said. “Ninety-five percent of dam removals don’t have these kinds of problems.”

While some groups — including the Sierra Club — believe that all dams are perversions of nature that should be corrected, scientists such as Waldman are less absolute. He would like to see a national scorecard created so that dams can be assessed and their costs and benefits weighed. “There’s no doubt many dams play important roles, but many, many, many medium and small dams sit there because of inertia,” said Waldman, who has written a book on dam removal, “Running Silver: Restoring Atlantic Rivers and Their Great Fish Migrations.” “We need to get them out of the water again. They don’t belong there.”

‘The members [of Golden Lotus] have come to realize that dams are not good things and that restoration is a good thing.’

Bill Schlecte

Golden Lotus attorney

It has been more than a year since the lake created by the Song of the Morning Dam vanished, its 45 acres drained in stages as the dam opened to allow the Pigeon River to resume its flow. The new landscape, a vast meadow cut by burbling waters, is still evolving.

“What we’re seeing now is the river forming its channel,” says Lisha Ramsdell, the associate director of the local conservation nonprofit Huron Pines, standing on a chilly November afternoon beside a bench where yoga retreat visitors once sat to observe the still waters. “This is something that usually happens over hundreds of years. So to be able to watch that process occur very, very quickly is amazing.”

In many ways, the Song of the Morning project benefited from case studies elsewhere of dam removal. Every step in its removal was done carefully; it took six months, for example, to drain the lake after the dam stopped operating. After jackhammers and backhoes spent the final week of October taking apart and carting off the dam, crews returned weekly to shovel out sediment so that it isn't carried downstream. Thus far, there have been no negative consequences for fish or property, Ramsdell said, and anglers are eager to partake in what they’re expecting to be a renewed population of steelhead trout next year. The Pigeon River now runs wild for 30 miles until it empties into Mullett Lake, to the north in Cheboygan County.

Still, the Song of the Morning is also a study in resistance to dam removal. To Golden Lotus Chairwoman Carol Armour, who led her group’s court fight, the lake’s vastness and calm was central to the yoga retreat’s charm and function. “The quiet, the beauty, the contact with nature, the still — you know you’re just a little bit closer to God. It’s just a little easier,” she told Michigan Public Radio in 2011 at the height of the dispute. (She could not be reached for comment for this article.)

Now Ramsdell hopes the case can become a different sort of symbol — one of reconciliation. Her group helped broker the agreement between Golden Lotus and state agencies and oversaw the lake draining, the dam removal and now the construction of a bridge where the dam once stood. “To them, they just always had that lake as a reflecting pond, and they were going to lose that,” she said. “To be able to tell them there’ll be a natural river instead, well, that was a long conversation.”

Eventually, after many lengthy discussions, Golden Lotus’ proprietors experienced a remarkable turnaround in opinion. In April 2014, when the agreement was reached, Golden Lotus attorney Bill Schlecte told The Petoskey News that the retreat operators looked forward to trading the pond for a vast, lush meadow. “We’re absolutely delighted with the outcome,” he said. “The members [of Golden Lotus] have come to realize that dams are not good things and that restoration is a good thing.”

Now Ramsdell and others are optimistic. About 2,500 dams similar in size to Song of the Morning remain in Michigan, she says. “That’s significant to our river systems and the well-being of our ecosystems. Infrastructure needs to be maintained or the purpose for which it was built is no longer valid. More and more communities are going to start having these conversations.”

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