Oregon's Crooked River flows free after the removal of 102-year-old Stearns Dam. Photo courtesy www.riverdesigngroup.com/

Oregon’s Crooked River flows free after the removal of 102-year-old Stearns Dam. Photo courtesy riverdesigngroup.com

By Eugene Buchanan

Frankly my dear, I don't want a dam. Cliché as the Clark Gable-chiding bumper sticker is, that's the overriding sentiment of river conservationists this past year. According to conservation organization American Rivers, in 2013 communities in 18 different states, working in partnership with various non-profits and state and federal agencies, removed 51 outdated or unsafe dams throughout the country, restoring waterways for everyone from fish to floaters.

The dams restored free-flowing water to rivers in Alabama, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming, restoring more than 500 miles of waterway. Topping the list for the eleventh year in a row was Pennsylvania, where 12 dams were removed, followed by Oregon, which lost eight, and New Jersey, where four dams were removed. American Rivers played a role in 25 of the dam removals.

The water-restoring efforts spell good news for environmentalists, as well as paddlers now able to dip a blade on the now-free flowing river sections. "The river restoration movement in our country is stronger than ever," says American Rivers president Bob Irvin. "Communities nationwide are removing outdated dams because they recognize that a healthy, free-flowing river is a tremendous asset."

Highlighting last year's dam removals are three of special note:

Whittenton Dam, Mill River, Mass.: The Whittenton Dam was the second in a series of three dam removals from the Mill River in Taunton, Mass. Built in 1832, the 8-foot high, 100-foot-wide, concrete dam originally provided power for textile and other mills. Concerns over dam owner liability, public safety, and fish passage prompted its removal, as did a near failure in 2005 that would have caused catastrophic flooding and resulted in the evacuation of 2,000 people from downtown Taunton. The issues at the dam provided the catalyst for improved dam safety regulations in the state. The project restored a mile of river and floodplain habitat for fish and wildlife. Project partners are completing the designs to remove the third dam later in 2014, re-creating access to important spawning habitat for river herring, American eel and sea lamprey.

Lassiter Mill Dam, Uwharrie River, North Carolina.: Lassiter Mill Dam, a 12-foot-high, 200-foot-long structure on the Uwharrie River in Randolph County, N.C., was removed last August in conjunction with American Rivers, the Piedmont Conservation Council, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and area the landowners. The group worked to restore a historic American shad run as well as habitat for other aquatic life, including freshwater mussels and native fish. Marking the third dam removal in this watershed, the dam removal also allowed access to an additional 14.6 miles of mainstem habitat and a total of 189 reconnected river miles including tributaries.

Removing the Stearns Dam on the Crooked River, Oregon. Photo courtesy riverdesigngroup.com

Removing the Stearns Dam. Photo courtesy riverdesigngroup.com

Stearns Dam Removal, Crooked River, Oregon.: Capping a 10-year-log project, the six-foot-tall, 150-foot-wide Stearns Dam was removed from the Crooked River to open up 12 miles of habitat for Chinook salmon and Middle Columbia steelhead. Built by a ranching family in 1911, Stearns Dam was a rock- and log-filled structure covered with concrete that had outlived its useful purpose and was no longer used for irrigation flows. The section just upstream is some of the river's best habitat and includes the beginning stretch of the river's Wild and Scenic portion. The Crooked River is the Deschutes River's largest tributary and the Stearns Dam removal will benefit the fish reintroduction program underway in the larger Deschutes Basin. The project was funded in part by a partnership between AR and the NOAA Restoration Center, with the local Crooked River Watershed Council and Quail Valley Ranch also key collaborators.

Here is Andy Maser’s film of the Condit Dam removal in October, 2011. Because we love the White Salmon River and watching things go boom.[/caption]

Following the highly publicized removal of the 100-year-old Condit Dam on Washington's White Salmon River in October 2011, last year's dam removals are keeping the river restoration momentum flowing as strongly as the waters the removals have freed. Last year's dam removal numbers were so numerous, in fact, that American Rivers is celebrating the fact with an interactive map of all known dam removals in the United States as far back as 1936. It has already added the information on 2013's 51 dam removals to its database of 1,150 dams removed across the country since 1912 (850 of which have been removed in the past 20 years) in its effort to assimilate dam removal information to better communicate the benefits of restoring river health and clean water, revitalizing fish and wildlife, improving public safety and recreation, and enhancing local economies.