Removal Of Dam On Tribal Land Points To Changing River Policies

A Native American tribe’s removal of an antiquated hydroelectric dam last month in upstate New York follows what appears to be a nationwide trend to restore rivers to their natural state.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe spearheaded the decommissioning of 87-year-old Hogansburg Dam and is now working with federal agencies to monitor silt movements in the waterway and study how habitats and fish populations will change as a result of the now-free-flowing river.

Dam removal as a way to restore river health and boost fish populations has been on the rise over the past couple of decades, according to American Rivers, a nonprofit group that works to restore damaged rivers. A total of 62 dams from California to North Carolina were removed in 2015 alone, and communities throughout the nation have dismantled about 1,300 dams since 1912, with the vast majority taken down in the past 25 years, the group said.

The Hogansburg Dam decommissioning is a first for the state of New York and a first for a tribal government, but it’s unclear if the pace of removing dams for environmental and recreational benefits will continue under the incoming Trump administration.

President-elect Donald Trump this week named a Republican congressman from Montana, Ryan Zinke, as secretary of the interior. Zinke has been credited by environmentalists for his support of designating Montana’s East Rosebud Creek as a wild and scenic river, but the avid fisherman and hunter is also an advocate of constructing hydroelectric projects at existing Montana dams.

“I will work tirelessly to ensure our public lands are managed and preserved in a way that benefits everyone for generations to come,” Zinke said in a statement released on Thursday. “Most important, our sovereign Indian Nations and territories must have the respect and freedom they deserve.”

 The removal of dams such as Hogansburg will have little impact on the electricity grid overall, said Amy Kober, spokeswoman for American Rivers. “They’ve all had a number of strikes against them,” Kober told AMI Newswire, including excessive costs for upgrades in order to be relicensed and barriers to high-quality salmon habitats.

The Hogansburg Dam was built in 1929, with an inefficient single turbine, said Tony David, water resources program manager for the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation. On top of that, the facility was damaged and operating at only 30 percent capacity, David said.

“We never saw any benefit from that,” he told AMI. He added that tribal lands sustained the environmental downsides of having the dam in place but did not directly benefit from what little energy was generated.

Discussions about decommissioning the plant, which was previously owned by Brookfield Renewable Energy, began about six years ago. Upgrading and relicensing the facility to current federal standards would have cost millions of dollars, David said, and stakeholders eventually agreed that removal was the best option for the region.

In place of the industrial plant and 330-foot-long dam spanning the river, the tribe plans to build a park that will feature tribal artwork and provide public access to the river on the west bank, he said.

David said that projects in the works now through next year include monitoring the fish populations, such as Atlantic salmon, lake sturgeon, walleye and American eel, as well as mapping the river bottom and restoring riparian areas along the shore.

“How the system will respond is something that we will have to determine,” he said.

There are areas of river silt and sediments miles above the former dam site, so the tribe and federal agencies will monitor the movement of that sediment. “If there is a need for intervention, then we will explore those options,” he said.

Silt often needs to be flushed out once a dam is removed, but usually it’s a short-term issue as free-flowing rivers restore themselves and attract new wildlife, said Kober.

“From insects to birds to mammals, you jump-start the whole web of life again,” she said.

Kober added the following observations. The benefits of dam removal include more recreational fishing and kayaking opportunities, plus renewed community interest in the river. In Maine, indigenous culture was revitalized and a community festival organized to support the return of more salmon in the Penobscot River after dams were dismantled.  

A free-flowing river can also filter and store water more efficiently by reconnecting river overflow with surrounding flood plains, according to American Rivers.

There are still more than 80,000 dams along rivers in the United States, so the removal of scores of dams in recent years remains a small percentage, Kober said.

“Hydropower will continue to be part of our country,” she said.

Still, the number of dam removals has averaged 15 to 30 a year.

“We’ve seen a wave of dam removals in recent years because of the (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) relicensing process,” she said.

In Upstate New York, the decommissioning of the Hogansburg Dam has resulted an additional 275 miles of migratory fish habitat along the St. Regis River and its tributaries, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The dam removal also reconnects the river’s flow into the St. Lawrence River.

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