River Restoration by Dam Removal: Assessing Riverine Re-Connectivity Across New England
Thursday, 18 December 2014
The impacts of dams in New England are especially acute as it possesses one of the highest densities of dams in the US, with the NID documenting more than 4,000 dams, and state agency records indicating that >14,000 dams are peppered throughout the landscape. This large number of dams contributes to pervasive watershed fragmentation, threatening the ecological integrity of rivers and streams, and in the case of old, poorly maintained structures, posing a risk to lives and property. These concerns have generated active dam removal efforts throughout New England. To best capture the geomorphic, hydrologic, and potential ecological effects of dam removal at a regional level, we have compiled a dataset of 127 removed dams in New England, which includes information about structural characteristics, georectified locations, and key watershed attributes (including basin size, distance to next upstream obstacle, and number of free-flowing river kms opened up). Our specific research questions address (1) what is the spatial distribution of removed dams and how does this pattern relate to stated management goals of restoring critical habitat for native resident freshwater and diadromous fish, (2) what are the structural or management commonalities in dam types that have been removed, and (3) what has been the incremental addition of free-flowing river length? Rather than reflecting an overall management prioritization strategy, results indicate that dam removals are characterized more by opportunistic removals. For example, despite a regional emphasis on diadromous fish protection and restoration, most removals are inland rather than coastal settings. Most of the removed dams were small (~ 45% < 4 m) although ~10% of the removed dams were 6-8 m high. However, despite the predominant removal of small dams, these dams were not restricted to headwater locations; most (38%) occurred in medium-sized watersheds having upstream drainage areas between 100-1,000 km2 with 8% formerly impounding watersheds between 1,000 – 10,000 km2. The combined effect has been significant in opening up >2,300 river kms over the past several decades, with implication for both resident and diadromous fish, and with many removals located in mid-sized rivers that are a key link between upstream and downstream/coastal aquatic ecosystems.