The United States removed a record 72 dams in 2014, according to American Rivers, a domestic watchdog group. This brings the total number of dams removed nationwide to 1,185.
To the casual observer, removing dams may seem like an odd event to celebrate. Dams have, after all, significantly contributed to the growth of America. As Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of the Interior, once put it, “on average, we have constructed one dam every day since the signing of the Declaration of Independence.” The structures are part of what made this country great.
However, just as laptops have replaced typewriters and cellphones have replaced a number of personal appliances, many dams have been supplanted by more efficient energy systems and eschewed for their negative environmental impacts. Engineers and naturalists now understand that by disrupting the natural flow of rivers, dams degrade ecosystems. Decreasing water flow leads to increases in water temperature and speed, damaging or even destroying sensitive marine species; enforcing irregular surges of water disrupts the seasonal cycles of soil and vegetation; and blocking rivers leads to the accumulation of sediments, debris and pollutants.
According to American Rivers, many dams are now so obsolete that they no longer serve their original purposes or, worse, drain local finances and pollute local waterways. By removing their dams, rivers can begin the long (but not too long) process of regeneration and revitalization. American Rivers has, in many cases, contributed financial and technical support to this cause.
Of the 72 dams deconstructed in 19 states last year, some were used for generating electricity, others for irrigating farmlands, but almost all of them were built prior to World War II. American Rivers has a full list of the dams removed available here.
By far, the most dam removals occurred in Pennsylvania, which has led the rest of the country 12 years running. Circle of Blue points out that this is largely due to its Growing Greener program, which has provided over $2 billion in river restoration, abandoned mine cleanup, farmland conservation and dam removal. The funding comes from state fees on natural gas production as well as appropriations from state and federal grants.