Who Should Pay to Remove Our Nation’s Aging Dams?

Oftentimes, the best option for many dams that have outlived their original purposes is removal. While removing a dam tends to benefit aquatic habitat, water quality, and river recreation options, finding the funding to do so is often a major hurdle.


Dec. 2, 2020

News Type

Press Release

When many of us think of dams, our minds may turn to Western behemoths like Hoover and Glen Canyon. In reality, the majority of dams in the United States are small, and many no longer serve a purpose.

In previous studies, Resources for the Future (RFF) Senior Fellow Margaret Walls and other RFF researchers found that dam removal, rather than repair, may prove to be a cost-effective solution to address aging dams that no longer benefit society. In a new issue brief, Walls and RFF Senior Fellow Leonard A. Shabman address the next logical question: who should pay for these costly removals?

“While dam removal has a number of benefits, such as improving water quality or river recreation opportunities, finding the funds to pay for a dam removal is a big hurdle —if not the biggest—to implementation,” Walls said.

The issue brief released today is the first in a four-part series examining funding options for dam removal in the United States. In this brief, the authors discuss three potential sources of funding:

  • Dam owners (such as individuals, local governments, and electric utilities)
  • Local communities who would benefit from dam removal
  • Entities looking to meet regulatory requirements (Clean Water Act Section 404 Permittees and Natural Resource Damage responsible parties)

The issue briefs to follow will be released throughout December and will dive deeper into federal funding programs, state and local funding approaches, and funding from parties trying to meet regulatory requirements.

“The fact of the matter is that we have quite a bit to gain from removing dams that no longer serve a purpose,” Shabman said. “Some of these dams are over a century old and it’s not always clear who should pay for their removal. We’re putting ideas forward in these briefs that may help decisionmakers find the funding they need.”

Read the first issue brief by Walls and Shabman, “Funding Options for Dam Removal in the United States,” here. Read more about RFF’s analyses into dam removal here.

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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