Dam Good News for Fish and Riverside Communities

Who hasn’t heard of the monumental migrations of salmon, sturgeon, and shad? Every year, they return to the very river where they were born. Without barriers, they can swim hundreds of miles for the single-minded purpose of procreation. As impressive as this feat may be, dams and other barriers are stopping fish from ever reaching their spawning grounds. Suddenly, what was an uphill battle becomes a serious matter of survival — for both fish and the economy of surrounding local communities.

In fact, there are more than two million dams blocking 600,000 miles of river in the United States alone. Large dams without proper fish ladders are obvious barriers to migrating fish. But it’s the thousands of smaller, obsolete dams and culverts that can have real consequences.

"Many small, in-stream structures look innocent enough," said Leah Mahan, a marine resources specialist for NOAA in California. "But even small structures if not properly placed can have a big effect on fish populations."

Brownsville dam remediation.
Dam removal in Brownsville, Ore.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Through NOAA’s new Open Rivers Initiative, regional experts are working to protect and restore access to historic migrating routes and engaging communities to help in the restoration process. The real importance of this program, says Mahan, moves far beyond the riverbank. NOAA works with citizens to help remove dams and restore the natural flow of the river, teaching people to care about their natural environment now and long into the future.

Engaging communities is a way to stimulate local economies. River restorations provide a variety of new job opportunities to remove dams and culverts. A restored river also helps revive local commercial and recreational fisheries as fish return.

“In communities where dams have been removed, there is an overwhelming response of excitement and pride,” said Mahan. “Neighbors work to educate each other and their children, and seasonal celebrations for the return of salmon continue long after the restoration is done.”

NOAA also engages a large coalition of conservation organizations and community groups — including The Nature Conservancy, American Rivers, Restore America’s Estuaries and the California Conservation Corp. — to work with communities during the restoration process and leverage funding for projects. These organizations and their programs provide a great deal of support and expertise, providing great benefits for areas around the country.

dam remediation project.
Dam removal in Brownsville, Ore.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

A recent dam removal project on Oregon’s Klaskanine River is just one example of the Open Rivers Initiative’s work to involve communities in collaborative restoration efforts by NOAA and its many partners. The removal of this structure restored access to miles of spawning and rearing habitat for coho, cutthroat, and steelhead salmon. Oregon also was the focus for one of the first Open Rivers’ projects, when it removed a dam in Brownsville in 2007.

In the two years since the Open Rivers Initiative was created, there have been nearly 150 requests from communities around the country for technical assistance and funding to help remove barriers to fish passage. NOAA is eager to respond, but funding has only been able to address 25 projects so far. NOAA logo.