The Biden administration has an opportunity to address an important but often overlooked aspect of the climate crisis: dams and hydropower. They contribute to climate change, send species to extinction, and displace communities. Dams are destructive relics of the past and have no place in an America vying to be a leader in clean energy, water sustainability, and environmental protection while creating the jobs of the future.
"As global temperatures rise, dams and their stagnant reservoirs become more harmful and less efficient ... dams are proving to be an unreliable and unsustainable water supply and energy solution."
Hydropower is often marketed as the kind of clean, renewable energy we're supposed to want. It's what dam developers have been claiming for decades. But a growing body of scientific research shows just the opposite. Of the 91,457 dams in the United States, it is estimated that 75-90% no longer serve any functional purpose and are detrimental to ecosystem health and water quality. Dams flood millions of acres of wetlands, grasslands, and forests, killing plants and reducing carbon sequestration. And research shows that the reservoirs they create add nearly a billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air every year -- mostly in the form of methane -- released as the submerged vegetation and trapped nutrients from upstream break down and bubble potent greenhouse gases to the surface.
Terra Mater: The Price of Damming our Rivers | Hydropower Impact, December 1, 2020.
Patagonia: DamNation | The Problem with Hydropower, April 23, 2020.
"...as vital sediment sits trapped behind dams, coastal communities lose an essential tool for replenishing beaches, fighting coastal erosion, and fending off rising sea levels."
As global temperatures rise, dams and their stagnant reservoirs become more harmful and less efficient. Fish are perishing in, and downstream of, warming reservoirs coast to coast. And, as we're witnessing right now in the drought-stricken West, dams are proving to be an unreliable and unsustainable water supply and energy solution. More numerous fires, floods, and erosion are filling reservoirs with sediment, reducing storage capacity. With shallow waters, even more of this essential resource is lost to evaporation. A United Nations study found that reservoirs evaporate more water than is used by people. Investing in groundwater recharge, aquifer storage, and better management offers a less expensive and more efficient solution. Stanford researchers have found that the storage capacity of underground aquifers in California dwarfs the storage capacity of all reservoirs in the state combined and that groundwater storage costs much less than dam storage.
"...dams are hideously expensive. Once dams are built, maintenance costs can be astronomical. All told, it would cost more than $70 billion to rehabilitate US dams."
Meanwhile, dams threaten the river systems that move nutrients from land to ocean, feed plankton and fish, provide clean water for millions of people, protect vulnerable areas against floods and droughts, and transport about 200 million tons of carbon to the ocean each year. Many cultural sites and ancestral lands important to sovereign tribes and Indigenous people remain submerged behind dams. And as vital sediment sits trapped behind dams, coastal communities lose an essential tool for replenishing beaches, fighting coastal erosion, and fending off rising sea levels. By contrast, the removal of dams can quickly reverse this trend and grow the shoreline. Just months after the removal of two large dams on Washington's Elwha River, the river's sand and cobble delta grew almost 100 acres of new land out into the sea.
"...removing dams help reduce emissions, restore former carbon sinks, and increase climate resilience..."
National Geographic: After Largest Dam Removal in US History, This River Is Thriving, June 2, 2016.
In addition to the harm they cause to people and the environment, dams are hideously expensive. Once dams are built, maintenance costs can be astronomical. All told, it would cost more than $70 billion to rehabilitate US dams.
Not only does removing dams help reduce emissions, restore former carbon sinks, and increase climate resilience -- it allows us to spend money once used for costly dam maintenance on truly renewable, clean energy and more sustainable water solutions. All of this comes with enormous benefits to ecosystems, like providing a real chance at survival for the many endangered runs of keystone species like Pacific and Atlantic salmon, and the many species and communities that depend on them. Plus, the cost of removing a dam is often much lower than the cost of maintaining one.
The Biden Administration must take three crucial steps. First, it should include significant funding for dam removal in the legislation in Congress, while excluding new dam investments. We can "build back better" while creating jobs and fighting climate change, all while benefiting tribal, rural, and economically marginalized communities. Second, it should direct the Environmental Protection Agency to require that all dam facilities study, evaluate, and report data on their full carbon footprint (carbon emissions and lost sequestration). Finally, it should remove electricity produced by hydropower dams from all US clean energy standards and strengthen Federal Trade Commission guidance around false environmental and climate claims related to dam facilities and hydropower.
We have to act fast. We can't afford to miss this chance to end our reliance on these outdated, expensive, harmful structures of the past and make smart investments in our country's future. The nation's health -- and ours -- depends upon it.