Aligning Dam Removal and Dam Safety: Comparing Policies and Institutions across States

This report analyzes case studies of specific state-level dam safety programs in order to determine avenues to improvement, especially in the context of dam removal.



Oct. 22, 2020



Reading time

1 minute


In this study, I compare and contrast institutions and policies in 15 states as they pertain to dam safety and dam removal to assess the reasons for the low number of dam removals nationwide and understand why some states have seen many more removals than others. Because many dam owners usually face a strict choice between repair and removal only if their dam is deemed to be a safety hazard and a regulator is requiring modifications and repairs, I examine how state dam safety regulations are designed and enforced. I also consider the extent to which dam safety officials present removal to dam owners as an alternative to repair, the financial incentives they can offer for either repair or removal, and the degree to which they cooperate with other state agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that promote dam removal and river restoration. I focus special attention on four states where, in my view, policies and institutions are best aligned: Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. I also describe a unique program in Iowa. In my opinion, however, more could be done to promote dam removals when dams are in disrepair, no longer serve a useful function, and create a safety hazard in the river, and where their removal would have large ecological or recreation benefits. Thus, I offer some observations for regulatory and policy design changes that could lead to more removals in these circumstances.

The paper begins in Section 2 by describing the basic design of state dam safety regulations and offers four explanations for why regulations, even if strongly enforced, might not facilitate removal. Section 3 then discusses the primary reason for advocacy around dam removal—namely, to improve fish passage and habitat, which drives the federal funding programs—and other motivations in some areas. Section 4 examines the policies and institutions in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Massachusetts, and a low-head dam mitigation program in Iowa. Section 5 expands the review to 10 more states, for comparison: Vermont, New Hampshire, Georgia, Virginia, Minnesota, Colorado, Idaho, California, Oregon, and Washington. Finally, the paper concludes with some suggestions for how to align dam safety and dam removal to achieve better environmental, economic, and river safety outcomes.


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