Conservation Groups Want Reassessment of Federal Dams

Conservation groups in the United States want the new President and Congress to establish a procedure for periodically reassessing the impacts and benefits of federally owned dams.

WASHINGTON, DC – The federal government owns and operates 1,932 dams which, once constructed, require no further comprehensive review, according to 35 groups that sent a letter to the new political leaders. “Federal taxpayers have an investment worth hundreds of billions of dollars in federal dams and water projects,” explains Steve Malloch of Trout Unlimited. “No rational investor would make that kind of investment and then forget to manage it. We should bring these dams into line with current needs.” A landmark report issued last month by the World Commission on Dams (WCD) called for a change in thinking about existing dams and improving their economic, environmental and social performance. The WCD proposed that constructed dams be subject to periodic reviews to obtain maximum benefits for current social, economic and environmental conditions. “The U.S. has been a world leader in building dams,” adds Margaret Bowman of American Rivers. “It is time that we become world leaders in managing them.” The international WCD was sponsored by the World Bank and the World Conservation Union. The appraisal of large dams around the world found that economic benefits in many cases were oversold, and environmental and social costs were underestimated. While the report focused primarily on new dam construction, it also addressed the ongoing impacts of existing dams. One of its major recommendations for existing dams was a periodic comprehensive reevaluation of the facilities and performance of dams, and evaluation of dam operations every five to ten years. “If we now examined those almost two thousand major federal dams, we would be able to find many ways to improve their performance,” the conservation groups said in a letter to the new President and new Congress. “In many cases, troublesome environmental impacts caused by dams and water projects can be mitigated simply by changing operations” such as changing the timing of water releases. In other cases, it suggests that installing more efficient turbines and generators, eliminating wasted power or installing fish ladders could increase benefits. “In a small number of cases, those impacts are simply the price paid for the benefits and we either accept the cost or remove the dam,” it reads. “Most of the federal dams were built decades, even a century, ago,” says Malloch. “Their management and facilities may not have changed since the day they were built and are now obsolete or woefully incomplete.” Signing the letter were 35 conservation, environmental and recreation organizations including Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense, Friends of the Earth, Defenders of Wildlife, and American Whitewater. (Nov 20 release; contact Steve Malloch at 703-284-9415)

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