Most of America’s hydropower dams were built in the beginning of the 20th century, during a time when both human values and available technologies were drastically different. Today, with modern technology at our fingertips, it seems we’re constantly updating everything, except our dams. It’s high time we start, for the sake of healthier rivers that will go on to produce cleaner energy and invite more recreation than ever before.
In many cases, outdated or unused dams create more river damage than they’re worth and should be removed. But there are many other cases in which dam removal doesn’t make sense. A dam that still provides ample energy but doesn’t live up to modern environmental considerations is primed for hydropower reform, which can improve its operation, as well as drastically increase the health and recreation opportunities of its river.
John Seebach, Senior Director of Federal River Management at American Rivers, explains: “Reforming hydropower dams is important for recreation. Most hydro dams were constructed 50 or more years ago, during a time when recreational values and the way that people recreated on rivers were different than they are today. Re-thinking and re-operating those hydro projects now gives us an opportunity to fit them to modern recreational values and opportunities.” According to Seebach, hydropower reform can result in some of the following:
- Recreational releases of water into the river for canoeing, kayaking or commercial rafting
- Stabilizing reservoir levels for “lake” boating’ changes to flows or improvements to water quality that improve the health of aquatic species and the recreational and commercial fisheries that depend on those species
- Improved public access to rivers and reservoirs and new hiking trails or campgrounds on the lands surrounding a hydropower project
- The improvement of simple aesthetics (e.g. making sure that a bypassed waterfall isn’t dry)
It’s not often that we get a second chance with the environment. In most cases, if humans mess with a natural resource, the damage is done for good. Yet in the case of our hydropower dams, we’ve got the opportunity to clean up and make things better – both for the rivers and for ourselves. In the name of ecology, the environment and outdoor recreation, let’s advocate for hydropower reform and make America’s dams the true modern feats of engineering they were meant to be (with recreation access, too).