The Army Corps of Engineers is tackling a dam removal project that could affect how the Corps approaches future dam removals. In the next decade, communities will be deciding whether to keep operating tens of thousands of hydroelectric dams on rivers across the country. This project is significant because it involves several dams being taken out of production along the same stretch of river. The GLRC’s Bob Allen reports:
The Army Corps of Engineers is tackling a dam removal project that
could affect how the Corps approaches future dam removals. In the next
decade, communities will be deciding whether to keep operating tens of
thousands of hydroelectric dams on rivers across the country. This
project is significant because it involves several dams being taken out of
production along the same stretch of river. The GLRC’s Bob Allen
(Sound of water)
The Boardman River is beautiful. It winds and turns and tumbles
through forested hillsides and passes along northern cedar swamps.
Sections of the upper river qualify as a blue ribbon trout stream, but a
series of dams along the lower half of the river changed some of the best
Steve Largent has worked on repairing damaged banks along the
Boardman for the last fifteen years. He says removing the dams will
restore faster flowing sections of the river, and clearing out the sand and
silt built up behind the dams will be good for trout and other critters.
“The sediment that is building up in the back of Brown Bridge pond
continues to move upstream as it fills in the upper end of the pond it’s
aggregrating upstream. It’s moving upstream further and further destroying
habitat further upstream.”
So a free running river will help wash away that sediment, but these days
it’s not just anglers who are interested in the Boardman River. Recently
river engineers have been drawn to the Boardman like trout to a fly
fisherman’s lure. They’re interested in landing the job of studying the
Boardman River and its dams. The million dollar study will look at
whether to keep or tear down three hydroelectric dams along a 17 mile stretch of river in northern Michigan just before it flows into Lake
Craig Fischenich is a research engineer with the Army Corps of
Engineers. He says the potential to remove three dams along the same
stretch of river is not something you’re going to find anywhere else.
“Whereas in many parts of the country they’re removing individual dams, they’re on systems that have other dams on them, and so this is an
opportunity here to actually try to restore an entire watershed.”
Fischenich says taking out the dams would mean improvements for
native fish. But there are risks too. If the dams go, invasive species
such as the parasitic sea lamprey could get upriver, and introduced
species such as steelhead and salmon could swim into the river and
compete with the native fish.
That prospect doesn’t exactly thrill John Wyrus, who lives on the
Boardman. He’d rather see some kind of obstacle down near the mouth
of the river to prevent introduced species from entering.
“So that these steelhead and salmon can’t get up the river. I would just
like to see it a brown trout and brook trout fishery.”
That’s the kind of scenario the study of the Boardman River would
(Sound of people talking)
Recently a lot of the engineers vying to do the study gathered at a
conference put together by the Corps of Engineers.
Gordon Ferguson works for ENSER Corporation. His company
is one of a dozen that submitted bids to land the study.
“This is a particularly interesting project because it involves a lot of
complex issues both from an engineering standpoint and also local
community issues. Property rights issues of homeowners along the
What they learn from the Boardman could be important to communities
near rivers across the nation.
Many of the tens of thousands of dams across the country are aging, and
in coming years, just like on the Boardman River, those with hydroelectric generating stations will need to be upgraded to keep their operating license.
The local utility says the dams on the Boardman don’t generate
enough power to make it worth fixing them. So they’re giving up the
licenses to generate electricity. Ownership of the dams reverts to the
local governments, and local officials are asking the Army Corps of
Engineers to pay for the study of the Boardman. The federal agency is
eager to be involved in this project.
The Boardman River study offers a chance for researchers to figure out
how to count less tangible values. Like how removing dams will affect
other wildlife such as eagles and osprey along the river.
Jock Coyngham is an ecologist for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Typically, he says, wildlife and recreation get discounted in this kind of
study because it’s easier to quantify things like hydropower, but it’s
important to figure out what value they have.
“If you make all your resource decisions as a state and as a country over
a long period of time pretty soon there won’t be any substantial fish
populations, any wild reproduction. Just because traditional cost-benefit
analysis tends to underestimate those ecosystem services and values, let
The Army Corps is waiting final approval for funding. Once given the
OK, the study of the Boardman River and its dams… could very well lay
the groundwork for other dam removals around the country.
For the GLRC, I’m Bob Allen.