When the United States was a young nation, and its natural resources were perceived as endless, dams and the power they produced were viewed as sources of "free" energy. But, as has been the case in so many other situations where assumptions were made on the basis of "bottomless" resources, the continued existence of many dam projects is questionable. Environmental costs externalized by dam operators have become apparent as real costs in the form of a degraded environment and the decline of natural resources supported by riverine ecosystems, such as anadromous fish. As many dams have come down and others await demolition, the circumstances necessary to their removal have become evident, and arguments in favor and opposition of dam removal are no longer simply speculative. Despite the fact that several dams have been removed, however, we are left with certain unanswered questions, such as the unknown ecological consequences of removing large dams that have stood for a century or more, and the untested authority of a key government agency. Despite some uncertainties, dam removal plans are proceeding and further removals are inevitable. The removal of dams generally, and the recent arrangement for the removal of dams on both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts has focused on the restoration of habitat for various species of anadromous fish that migrate up rivers from the sea to spawn in freshwater. Fish such as salmon are often the focus as beneficiaries of dam removal because the health of these stocks can be measured in both economic and environmental terms. The restoration of habitat for anadromous fish, especially on the West Coast, is encouraged on the basis that increased habitat will mean an increase in fish, thus, commercial fisheries will benefit. Dam removal, however, has far broader ramifications than the anticipated effects on migratory fish. Dam removal will also facilitate the restoration of entire ecosystems. The removal of large dams will result in an increase in the number of organisms from the bottom of the food chain to the top level predators. If salmon and other anadromous fish recover, their recovery will well serve as an indicator that the overall health of the ecosystem is also improving. The process of dam removal has been very contentious, taking years of planning, research, negotiation, and legal argument. The parties involved include environmentalists, government, dam owners, and private landholders-each with unique interests. Environmentalists see dam removal as the keystone of regional ecosystem restoration projects. Other proponents of dam removal are quick to point out the economic returns of dam removal ranging from increased fish stocks for commercial fisheries, to increased revenues generated through recreation and tourism. Governmental policy is evolving away from the pro-development attitudes of the early 1900s toward a more balanced approach to dam construction. The federal agency responsible for licensing federal dams has seen its policy evolve over the past eighty years. Once responsible for promoting the increased utilization of hydropower for an industrializing nation, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission now finds itself in the position of a protectorate of the environment. This policy shift is making it possible for governmental agencies to consider dam removal as a viable alternative to long-standing practices of automatically issuing new permits when existing projects come up for relicensing. Dam owners, the most vocal opponents to dam removal, bring claims of particularized harm including uncompensated takings of property, loss of future revenues, and of costs arising from being deprived of cheap sources of electricity. In addition, riparian landowners claim that property interests are being taken in the form of disrupting a particular water level of a reservoir, or rate of flow of a river, that they have come to rely upon. Fluctuations in water level may leave some landowners high and dry, as land once at the edge of an impoundment may no longer be so after the impoundment is drained. Downstream landowners, having long enjoyed the controlled flow of water through dams, worry about flood control. This Comment seeks to differentiate the many speculative arguments that have been made during dam removal processes from those policy and legal arguments that have proven to be central considerations in future dam removal projects. The governmental regulatory mechanisms necessary to securing dam removal will be reviewed and analyzed. The most recent data on the ecological effects of dam removal, both positive and negative, will be presented. Finally, the legal arguments likely to find their way into court will be analyzed in the light of past judicial opinions and administrative determinations that may provide insight into the final disposition of potential cases stemming from dam removal projects. The analysis of the dam removal process will be presented in both general and case-specific contexts. General propositions will be discussed relevant to the removal of most federally regulated dams. Case specific analysis will be given in the context of removing the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, and the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Augusta, Maine. These three dams are the first large dams slated for removal, have received the greatest attention in the press, and because the governmental mechanisms employed to remove the dams are different, permit two unique strains of analysis.
Peter J. Carney,
Dam Removal: Evolving Federal Policy Opens A New Avenue Of Fisheries And Ecosystem Management,
Ocean & Coastal L.J.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/oclj/vol5/iss2/6