The rapid construction of dams across the United States in the 20th century opened up vast swaths of the country to development and agricultural industry, all while producing prodigious amounts of hydroelectric power. However, in the succeeding years, it has become increasingly clear that blocking the nation’s waterways is negatively impacting fish habitats, raising water temperatures, and, in some circumstances, reducing drinking water quality.
However, all is not doom and gloom. In a rare bipartisan moment, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are banding together to push forward the 21st Century Dams Act, a bill that would provide nearly $25 billion in federal funding to repair, retrofit, or demolish over 90,000 dams across the country.
The proposal follows a spate of similar initiatives at the state and local levels. In New York, Scenic Hudson and Riverkeeper are collaborating with the state government and nonprofit groups to remove dams across the Hudson River watershed and implement new aquatic connectivity projects. Further south, in Delaware, the University of Delaware and American Rivers are hard at work on a campaign to restore the Brandywine Creek watershed. And, out West, record heatwaves and the subsequent droughts are driving a fundamental reevaluation of the region’s relationship to a fast depleting, but essential, natural resource.
As reported by American Rivers, dams across the country are in many circumstances outdated and unsafe and increasingly prone to structural failure due to extreme weather conditions. Maintaining the status quo presents an incredible flood risk to surrounding communities; a tragic scenario recently experienced in Edenville, Michigan, where 10,000 residents were evacuated and 2,500 homes and buildings damaged.
Spending for the legislation is broken down into four separate categories. The federal government would provide nearly $10 billion to improve dam safety; changes in the federal tax code could allow for just under $5 billion in incentives for dam safety, environmental improvements, or dam removal; $7.5 billion in funding to remove aging non-hydroelectric dams; and $12 billion to improve existing federal dams and to fund research programs that boost environmental performance and decarbonization, amongst other endeavors.
In total, the bill could reconnect approximately 10,000 miles of river across the country. It has yet to be scheduled for a vote.