Finding the Funding to Tackle America’s Aging Dam Problem

New research by RFF scholars finds that federal, state, and local options exist to restore waterways and improve public safety.


Dec. 17, 2020

News Type

Press Release

Thousands of aging dams across the United States no longer serve their original purposes. According to a new issue brief series by Resources for the Future, removing these problem dams may increase public safety, improve water quality, and restore aquatic habitats. However, costs to remove dams vary widely and, in some places, funding is a major barrier to removal.

In a new issue brief, scholars at Resources for the Future (RFF) evaluate public funding sources from the federal to local level of government. They examine existing programs, gauge their effectiveness, and offer solutions to expand funding options to more readily include dam removals. This is the fourth and final installment in RFF’s series examining funding options for dam removal in the United States.

“Finding sources of funding can be incredibly difficult. But at the end of the day, there are a lot of options out there,” coauthor and RFF Senior Fellow Margaret A. Walls said. “Collectively, the issue briefs paint a pretty comprehensive picture of available resources. They also offer some suggestions for how to boost federal dollars, set up dedicated revenue sources at the state and local level, and identify where and how to rely on entities that could offer funding through regulatory obligations.”

The series identifies three categories of funding for dam removal:

  • State and local funding. Because the benefits of dam removal are often localized, it can make sense for state and local governments to fund projects. Identifying state-specific programs or options financed by taxes or fees are valid options. Gaining support from local communities may help improve funding streams.
  • Federal funding. Funding is scattered across many different federal programs and entities, but few focus solely on dam removals. It is often difficult to pinpoint exactly how much money is available. It is also necessary for Congress to set appropriations in some programs closer to authorized levels to make more headway with dam repair or removal.
  • Funding from entities that face regulatory obligations to offset effects on aquatic environments. These funding sources are attractive because they do not rely on the dam owner or on federal or state grant programs, which need a revenue source. However, they apply only in limited settings so advocates should seek out additional funding sources outside this category.

“People and organizations working to remove a dam should look for a smorgasbord of funding—oftentimes, programs don’t focus specifically on dam removal or are not funded to their full potential,” said coauthor and RFF Senior Fellow Leonard Shabman.

For more details on specific policies and programs within each category, read the corresponding issue briefs and other recent RFF research on dam removal. RFF Senior Fellows Margaret A. Walls and Leonard Shabman, as well as Virginia Tech Professor Kurt Stephenson, contributed to this series.

Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.

Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and may differ from those of other RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.

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