Dam Removal in the Pacific Northwest: Lessons for the Nation

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Environmental Law

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Env't L.


Over the past dozen years, a number of large dams in the Pacific Northwest have been removed in an effort to restore riverine ecosystems and dependent species like salmon. These dam removals provide perhaps the best example of large-scale environmental remediation in the 21st century. This restoration, however, has occurred on a case-by-case basis, without a comprehensive plan. Yet the result has been to put into motion ongoing rehabilitation efforts in four distinct river basins: the Elwah and White Salmon in Washington and the Sandy and Rogue in Oregon. In all, nine significant dams have been removed, and four more — in the contentious Klamath Basin of Oregon and California — are slated for removal in within the next decade. This article surveys both the successful and proposed removals in to draw lessons both within and beyond the Pacific Northwest. We identify a number of factors that determine both the speed and success of dam removal efforts, including the availability of the federal licensing process under the Federal Power Act, the existence and organization of local opposition, the amount and sources of funding, and the support of federal and state resource agencies and well-positioned members of Congress. These factors suggest that the promised removal of the Klamath Dams as well as calls for removing the federal dams on the Lower Snake face significant odds.

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