INTERVIEW with Dam Removal Europe
Clywedog dam and reservoir, Powys, Wales, UK
IMAGE: Welsh Photographs
Pao Fernández Garrido of Dam Removal Europe gives the lowdown on the reasons why many dams are impeding river restoration efforts, and why this is a problem we can no longer afford to ignore.
Can you tell us a bit more about Dam Removal Europe and what your main objectives are?
Free-flowing rivers are the arteries of Europe’s richest ecosystems. The larger part of the European biodiversity is connected to rivers, wetlands and deltas. Currently, however there are hardly any free flowing rivers left in Europe as we have been fragmenting rivers for centuries due to dam construction.
Dam Removal Europe (DRE) is a European-wide dedicated cooperation of organizations with an ambition to bring back life to our rivers by removing old, obsolete dams*. To ‘free’ our European rivers again. Dam Removal Europe was started by six organizations, World Fish Migration Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, Karlstad University, European Rivers Network, the Rivers Trust and Rewilding Europe. Currently it is a strong growing network of authorities, NGO’s, companies and knowledge institutes from many different European countries working on dam removal.
The objective of Dam Removal Europe is to put the removal of old, obsolete dams as the most eco-efficient and cost-effective measure into the spotlight. It is clearly proven that after the removal of dams the river-ecosystem recuperates fast and strongly. It is a very interesting measure for water authorities to meet the Water Framework Directive goals. Furthermore, DRE facilitates the development and exchange of knowledge on Dam Removal between partners in different countries. It does so in an inspiring way so jointly we can re-create and protect our great European rivers.
How exactly do rivers benefit from the removal of transversal** obstacles?
Dams impact every aspect of healthy rivers (American Rivers, 2012). Dams seriously impede the migration patterns of fish and other aquatic fauna and this leads directly to the decline and even local extinction of many species. Dams can be responsible for a significant loss of riverine habitat; many times favouring exotic and/or invasive species. They alter the natural flow of rivers, reducing the downstream flow and decreasing the river’s natural flood frequency. This reduces the channel connection with the floodplain, which decreases the soil fertility and aquifer recharge. Dams can block nutrients and sediments upstream the dam, in greater or lesser degree depending on the dimensions of the dam and the volume of water being stored. Invariably, this causes downstream incision problems in the river channel and bank erosion, diminishing delta formation due to the lack of sediment deposition, and sometimes causing coastal erosion due to sand decrement.
Upstream the dam, the riverine dynamics is modified to a lentic (standing-water) system,
deteriorating the water quality and causing greenhouse gases emissions through the decomposition of stored vegetation and carbon inflows from the basin.
Depending on the number of barriers which exist in any particular river and the extent of the damage on the entire river system; all or many aspects listed above have the potential to improve when removing the obstacle/s.
How easy is it to propose and undertake the demolition of channel crossings in rivers?
Is there support from the local communities and from the public institutions that manage the rivers to undertake these types of actions?
It all depends on the level of knowledge of the stakeholders and how directly they are affected by it. That is to say, in general citizens (worldwide, and not only in Spain) are often unaware of the environmental impacts of a dam. They see dams almost in the same light as, say, a natural feature such as a waterfall, and yet dams are not waterfalls. In fact, even the hydropower energy generated is being sold as a form of “green energy” and yet it is not. The fact that hydropower does not generate CO2 directly doesn’t mean it is a “green energy” per se, because as previously mentioned, dams do cause a wide range of negative environmental impacts. So whilst hydropower can be considered a form of renewable energy, it is certainly a long way off being a green energy, at least in the truest sense of the term.
At first, local citizens tend to react with a horrified gasp when they hear about the notion of “dam removal”. I have been asked, “Can you actually remove a dam?” on more than one occasion. Many people tend to view dams as an untouchable monument or something to that effect. However, when you take a moment to properly explain why these projects are actually being carried out, the reaction is generally a very positive one. Additionally, nobody is really aware of the ridiculously high number of dams in our country (Spain), and if you try searching for a definitive answer, you’ll be disappointed. We started compiling river obstacles inventories around two years ago… and since then we have identified up to 26,000 dams in Spain, but that number is no reflection of the reality of the situation. I estimate that the real figure is at least twice as many.
As for whether there is support from the public administration responsible for managing the rivers: all of the professionals that I have met in our public administration (River Basin
Authorities) with a working knowledge of rivers support these efforts, and I have personally had a great experience working alongside them to help solve these issues. The problem lies more with the fact that within our public administration many of our experts are “old school” civil engineers specializing in canals rather than rivers. Approaching rivers in the same manner as canals are still the way river basins are being managed in Spain, which is a tremendous mistake. The saddest part is that on many occasions we end up with civil engineers hindering the progress of real river experts who are trying their best to restore them.
What is the current situation regarding the status of dam removals in Europe? And where can we find the most significant number of dam removals?
To the surprise of many, including myself when I started researching this issue, Europe is actually leading the world when it comes to the demolition of dams. It has previously been thought that the USA was ahead of the pack, with more than 1,300 documented dams removed. However, Europe has managed to demolish over 4,500 barriers. According to their records, France has removed more than 2,300 barriers, naturally or artificially (l’Agence française pour la biodiversité y European Rivers Network, 2017), however this number is by no means conclusive. There’s Sweden with more than 1,600 (Länsstyrelsen Jönköping, 2017), Finland with 450 (Finnish Environment Institute, 2017) and Spain with more than 200 dams removed (MAPAMA, 2017).
If you state these facts at the start of a conversation, you will usually get a shocked reaction out of most people, and the first thought that will come into their mind will be that you are some kind of an “eco-terrorist” or an environmental extremist. But here’s the thing: before disclosing these numbers you must always start at the very beginning and explain how many barriers we have to begin with. Aha, then suddenly everything changes. For example, most people have no idea that France has more than 95,000 obstacles (70,000 of which are dams and weirs); Sweden has more than 10,000; Switzerland has more than 100,000, and in Spain; we don’t even know the real number because our inventories are incomplete (as I previously mentioned, up to 26,000 barriers in Spain have already been identified, with at least 50,000 estimated). These are flabbergasting figures.
How do you see the future of our rivers with regard to channel crossing barriers? Is there a particular country or model that should we look to for guidance?
We have well exceeded both dam and weir building limits (by evading regulations and not building fishways on those dams). We have essentially been using rivers as garbage dumps for many decades, whilst thousands of municipalities still don’t have necessary water treatment plants and are discharging all kinds of unknown substances directly into the rivers.... I believe that if we do not take this issue seriously and we continue doing things in such a careless and incompetent fashion, we will end up being left with only canals and sewers, rather than rivers.
I think the United States is a good model. In that country during the 1970s, there were several dam failures, which caused the death of many people and great material damage. Therefore, The National Dam Safety Program (NDSP) was created in 1979, which aims to prevent further catastrophes by regulating, controlling and monitoring dams. That is, if somebody wants to build a dam, they must remain responsible for its continual maintenance. In other words, you cannot simply leave your dam as is without taking proper care of it. In addition, they have a multitude of revenues to help raise money for the restoration of aquatic ecosystems, and any penalties received from environmental violations often go on to be used restoring and improving the environment, unlike in Spain, where these fines simply goes to back into the public kitty where this money can end up being used for any unrelated purpose.
Is there anything else you would like to add or share with us?
It would be to highlight that there are several reasons why dams are being demolished in Europe and the USA, and it is not only because of environmental reasons.
In the USA, for example, the primary reason is oftentimes economical. This is because US law dictates that if you own a dam then you must maintain it. This invariably means that you are subject to periodical inspections, which will cost you money. If, after those inspections the state engineer deems that repair must be carried out on the dam, then this will cost you a lot more money. So, if you own a dam, even if it gives you the economical benefits, it will still cost you a lot of money to maintain it.
Another reason is public safety. All dams have a shelf-life, which is why it is important to inspect and check on dams that no longer serve a purpose or are abandoned, to avoid potential accidents which may arise due to dam failures. In addition to this, there are small dams (weirs) which seem harmless but can actually be really dangerous. They are known in the USA as “drowning machines”, where a very strong suction force (hydraulic force) is generated below the dam, sucking any objects down to the base of the dam. This phenomenon is responsible for taking lives every year.
Although less known, there are also legal cases for removing dams. Under the terms of the European Union Water Framework Directive, Member States agreed to achieve “good ecological status” in all water bodies by the year 2015 (in some cases this has been extended to 2027). Furthermore, and under the Habitats Directive, the European Commission
had required Member States to restore and maintain the natural habitats of the European Union Natura 2000 network. The restoration of the freshwater environments of Europe is therefore underpinned by important EU legislative requirements, and the restoration of the continuum of rivers is a fundamental part of that. Additionally, Spanish legislation dictates that once a dam has finished its objective, the dam owner must leave the river in the same conditions they found it in prior to the construction of the dam. However, very few people have actually paid any attention to this law, thus leaving thousands of dams abandoned in our rivers and without any consequences to the offender. Thousands of cases, some consisting of potentially very dangerous structures as they have never undergone the necessary maintenance and inspections, remain unknown to the administration.
To find out more about how Dam Removal Europe is helping European rivers to ecologically flourish once more, please visit:
* The definition of "dam" or "dams" is also extended to include weirs
** Transversal obstacle denotes any man-made structure which is built perpendicular to the river channel i.e. a small dam or weir or culvert
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