It’s Fish vs. Dams, and the Dams Are Winning
Thousands of dams across New York, many abandoned, are blocking fish migrations. A movement to remove them is growing.
A dam on the Quassaick Creek in Orange County, N.Y. Many dams are no longer in use and block the migration of fish.
Credit: Dave Sanders for The New York Times
By Lisa W. Foderaro
Jan. 20, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET
NEWBURGH, N.Y. — For thousands of years, alewives and blueback herring have left the ocean to swim up the Hudson River to any one of scores of tributaries to lay their eggs. But in a more recent era, the fish have been literally hitting a wall as dams popped up all over the region, powering grist and woolen mills and later factories.
Today, there are an estimated 2,000 dams in the Hudson River Estuary between New York City and Albany, N.Y. Many are small and obsolete, abandoned by long-shuttered factories and serving no purpose other than to thwart fish migration and harm river ecology.
Now a growing band of environmentalists wants to restore the waters to their natural state. They are targeting dams for removal not only in the Hudson Valley but across New York and the United States.
“Small dams are everywhere, and many of them just persist through inertia,” said John Waldman, a biology professor at Queens College and the author of “Running Silver: Restoring Atlantic Rivers and Their Great Fish Migrations.” “Until recently, no one had the wherewithal or energy to take these things down.”
While major dams were built throughout the West for hydroelectric power, many structures dating to the 1700s and 1800s in the East were built for mechanical power. A paddle wheel would turn a shaft that propelled gears that moved belts to make products like candles, felt and wire.
Some people find the vestiges of that industrial past attractive. Dams can resemble waterfalls, and small ponds are formed by the water that is held back. Real estate developers have capitalized on the artificial ponds by building housing developments along their banks.
A challenge for environmental activists like George Jackman, a former New York City police lieutenant who now works for the nonprofit group Riverkeeper, is convincing people that removing a dam will have payoffs for the fish and the landscape.
Dr. Jackman has identified the Quassaick Creek, an 18-mile river in Orange County, about 60 miles north of New York City, as ripe for dam removal. He has dug through property records and talked to anyone who will listen about the wisdom of taking out the creek’s 12 dams, which range in height from 4 feet to 10 feet.
With help and financing from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which has committed $5 million in recent years to dam removal, Riverkeeper will oversee the dismantling this summer of the first dam on the Quassaick.
Soon after, the city of Newburgh plans to raze a second dam as part of a larger infrastructure project. And Dr. Jackman has commitments from at least one other dam owner to greenlight its removal.
“There’s something unnatural about a straightened, channelized river,” said Dr. Jackman, who earned a doctorate in biology after retiring from the police force.
He stepped gingerly on a late afternoon along the rushing Quassaick, its water bubbling and roaring as it churned toward the Hudson. “A river should have its own sinuosity,” Dr. Jackman said. “It should bend and curve and connect with the flood plain. Controlling these rivers is kind of like controlling a wild animal.”
From Maine to California, environmental groups are making the case to dismantle dams as a way to improve the ecology of river systems. Allowing fish to spawn is a chief goal, but it is not the only one. The flow of nutrients and sediments vital to the food web is also stymied by even the smallest dams.
In 2012 and 2013, two enormous dams were demolished on the Penobscot River in Maine, which had seen its fishery all but collapse since the early 1800s. Now fish have returned in droves: Atlantic salmon, alewives, baby eels, shad and brook trout, to name a few.
On the West Coast, four large dams on the Klamath River, which flows from Southern Oregon into Northern California, are slated for removal by 2022, streamlining some 400 miles of habitat for migratory fish.
On the East Coast, efforts are underway in Connecticut to eliminate obsolete dams from rivers that connect with Long Island Sound.
State officials are motivated partly by a concern for public safety, since aging dams can suddenly give way. “We have government regulations that say we are not going to let you let your dam collapse and kill people,” said Stephen Gephard, a supervising fisheries biologist for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “Hazardous dams have to be inspected every other year.”
Connecticut has about 4,000 dams, Dr. Gephard said, and the vast majority of those are obsolete. The state owns about 100 dams and is reviewing the list to determine which should be removed. But Dr. Gephard’s team has identified 20 to 30 privately owned dams that it would like to remove to allow fish passage.
It can take years, Dr. Gephard said, to educate a community or a private landowner about the merits of losing their dams, a process that often involves debunking myths. Some residents fear being left with a stinking mud flat once the dam is gone, but in fact, dormant seeds quickly become trees, shrubs and grasses.
“The most bizarre myth is the notion that if you remove the dam, there won’t be any water in the stream,” Dr. Gephard said. “It’s as if they think the water is coming from this concrete. So many Americans don’t understand the concept of a watershed or flowing water.”
To that end, conservation groups have enlisted engineering firms to create photo renderings showing how a river would appear without a dam, Dr. Gephard said.
In New Haven, Conn., stewards of a nature preserve owned by the New Haven Land Trust were confronted with the option of repairing a dam that dated to 1794 or tearing it down.
Both scenarios were costly.
According to J.R. Logan, the trust’s former board chairman, the cost of removal was more than $600,000. But an environmental group, Save the Sound, worked on behalf of the trust to secure federal money available to communities affected by Hurricane Sandy, since powerful storms make dams vulnerable to collapse.
After the dam was taken out in 2015, some fans of the local nature preserve were startled. “When you remove the pond, you have now exposed this big piece of land,” Mr. Logan said. “There were a couple of folks who said, ‘Hey, it’s looking a little rough.’ But we had done some homework and held a series of public meetings about what to expect. We didn’t have a revolt.”
Today, he said, the landscape is lush, with a succession of plants and trees recolonizing the acreage where the pond had been. Save the Sound also worked to make the free-flowing West River appealing to migrating fish by carefully arranging rocks in small pools. “Rivers were industrial powerhouses, and then they were dumps, and now they are drivers of nature again,” Mr. Logan said.
In New York, state officials estimate that there is one dam every 1,200 acres across parts of the Hudson River watershed. The Department of Environmental Conservation is encouraging landowners to take a hard look at dams; in November, the agency made nearly $1 million available for dam removal, said Kelly Turturro, the department’s regional director in the lower Hudson Valley.
“We’re not saying that all 2,000 dams should be removed,” Ms. Turturro said. “We want to focus on improving habitat for fish species if a dam is no longer necessary and not worth repairing.”
Related links and Bard's Sawkill project: