Dam Removal


International Rivers

“Searsville Reservoir is now a liability to Stanford and a source of concern in the community because of its negative environmental impacts on the entire watershed. While the initial cost of removing the dam and trapped sediments would be high, the long-term cost of leaving the structure could be higher. Continued dam maintenance and downstream safety hazard liability would likely exceed the removal costs over time.”

“The removal of Edwards Dam on July 1, 1999 launched the restoration of the Kennebec River, from Augusta to Waterville. Migratory fish, including alewives, striped bass, shad, sturgeon and Atlantic salmon have traveled from the sea past the old dam site to Winslow for the first time in 162 years.”


                          Edwards Dam removal on the Kennebec River 1999.

Brian Graber, Associate Director, River Restoration Program, American Rivers states that;

"Dam ownership requires costly maintenance and repairs and carries liability. Dam removal is a one-time expense. In addition, there are many funding sources available for river restoration, while there are few to none available for dam repair. Considering long-term costs, dam removal will almost always be cheaper than keeping a dam."

"in some cases we have replaced a dam's uses during removal anyway. For example, at one site, we replaced an impoundment water supply with nearby underground tanks, which are ultimately proving to be a more reliable source of water. Dam removal takes away long-term maintenance costs and liability from dam owners, enhances the environment and bolsters public safety, making it a “win-win.”"

Helen Sarakinos, Director, River Restoration Programs, River Alliance of Wisconsin states:

"In our part of the country, dams often don't provide many benefits to the communities around them. They're remnant dams, and often expensive to maintain. And yet, people keep pouring money into them. In this work, you have to understand that fear of change is a powerful motivator. People will choose the devil they know over the devil they don't."

About the recent agreement to remove the Klamath River Dams, Steve Rothert of American Rivers said, "This agreement really is a big step forward. Two years ago PacifiCorp said they would only consider removing the dams if somebody gave them a billion dollars. Today, they have agreed to pay $200 million to get rid of these old dinosaurs and all the problems they cause.”



Salmon and Steelhead in Your Creek: Restoration and Management of Anadromous Fish in Bay Area Watersheds

In discussing steelhead restoration in San Francisco Bay streams, Dr. Jerry Smith, Fisheries Biologist, San Jose State University, states that:

“Removal of Searsville Dam would create more potential habitat in the upper, reasonably-wet watershed.”


Virtually all of San Francisquito Creeks largest historic steelhead spawning and rearing tributary, Corte Madera Creek and its many small tributaries (shown below in brown), is blocked by Stanford’s Searsville Dam (at top center). The dam is the single biggest migration barrier for threatened steelhead and other aquatic species in the entire watershed.

Adult Steelhead Passage in Bear Creek Watershed

Dr. Jerry Smith, Dept. of Biological Sciences and Deborah Harden, Dept. of Geology, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA 95192

San Francisquito Watershed Council July 2001

“This dam blocks steelhead from accessing the watershed’s largest tributary (Corte Madera Creek) and a large percentage of spawning and rearing habitat in the watershed. Upstream of Searsville Dam, Corte Madera Creek and its associated tributaries contain over 8 miles of spawning and rearing habitat and

supply the watershed with the greatest amount of flow at 42%. The presence of a sustainable rainbow trout population in these upstream tributaries attests to the adequate spawning and rearing conditions and late summer flows that exist above Searsville Reservoir. Prior to construction of the Dam, this upstream habitat

would have been accessible to steelhead.”

“Due to the high quantity and adequate quality of spawning and rearing habitat upstream of the dam, fish passage upstream of Searsville Dam should be investigated. The height of the dam and limited amount of flow makes a fish ladder alternative highly unfeasible.”


National Performance of Dams Program

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University

- “1,595 significant hazard dams are within one mile of a downstream city”

- “Average age for a dam is 40 years” Note: Searsville Dam is over 115 years old.



The Aspen Institute

Dam Removal: A New Option for a New Century

Download the report HERE

“ Some of the tens of thousands of dams that exist today are approaching or have exceeded their useful lives, some pose risks to the public safety, and some have environmental and other impacts that no longer are perceived to be balanced by the benefits offered.”

“... dam removal can provide environmental, economic, and social benefits. Dam removal may result in environmental improvements by restoring natural flows to a river, removing blockages to fish movement, reestablishing healthy river habitat for fish and wildlife, exposing submerged river rapids and riverside lands, and improving water quality. Dam removal may provide social benefits by eliminating safety hazards... and economic benefits by avoiding costs associated with dam safety improvements and environmental impact mitigation.”

“...inclusion of dam removal in the slate of options considered likely will improve the quality of the final decision.”

“The group believes that, as people learn more about dam removal, the appropriate analytical and decision making process will evolve, and the experience gained in each case will help inform future dam removal decisions.”

“Dams are property, and dam owners have a right and responsibility to manage and maintain their property. However, rivers (and other waterways) by history and law are typically public in the United States. Decisions affecting the use of rivers with dams need to be subject to an open decision making process consistent with the scale of the project, ownership, and the public interest involved.”

“Addressing dam removal decisions in a manner that ensures broad input into the decision making process enhances the quality and acceptability of the decisions and legitimizes the outcomes.”

Following dam removal “newly exposed riparian lands can restore themselves relatively rapidly.”

The removal of a dam on Fishing Creek in Pennsylvania “increased the channel’s water storage capacity and thereby helped to reduce flooding.”


The Heinz Center

Dam Removal: Science and Decision Making

Download the report HERE

This comprehensive report identified the negative impacts of dams to include “the desiccation of river channels, loss of aquatic and riparian habitat, and significant reductions in native species, particularly fish. More than half of all the animals and plants on the endangered species list owed their precarious positions to water control structures (Losos et al., 1995)”

“In some cases, dam owners will save by removing a dam by either reducing insurance costs or avoiding expensive retrofitting. This is an easy economic decision for the owner.”


Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve

“...dam removal...does hold the potential for significantly enhancing riparian habitat and restoring steelhead trout runs through the Preserve and to the upper watershed. So unlike lowering the dam, removing Searsville Dam could potentially provide a net gain to the Preserve.

“...careful study is needed to determine the real extent and nature of the impacts.”


Rocky Mountain Institute

“Using large dams.... destroys ecosystems and kills wildlife.”


Conservation Science Institute

“Only within the past few decades has it become clear that the damage associated with the building of a single dam can extend the entire length of a river and beyond -- affecting the surrounding forests and watershed -- damaging the nearby estuaries, beaches, and ocean, and adversely affecting biodiversity on a regional basis.”

Former Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt said, "The public is now learning that we have paid a steadily accumulating price for these projects in the form of: fish spawning runs destroyed, downstream rivers altered by changes in temperature, unnatural nutrient load and seasonal flows, wedges of sediment piling up behind structures, and delta wetlands degraded by lack of fresh water and saltwater intrusion. Rivers are always on the move and their inhabitants know no boundaries; salmon and shad do not read maps, only streams."

“Although dam removal only recently became viewed as a reasonable river restoration tool, there are already numerous dam removal success stories. At least 465 dams have been removed from our nation's waterways - and at least 100 more are either committed for removal or under active consideration for removal. By continuing the trend to remove dams that do not make sense, we can begin to restore both the economic and ecological benefits associated with free flowing rivers.”


The Academy of Natural Sciences

“A growing number of small dams have been removed in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and many other states during the last two decades to reduce safety and liability risks (Bednarek 2002). Although safety and liability concerns are usually the primary factor influencing decisions to remove dams, some government agencies and environmental organizations have also proposed dam removal as a method of restoring fish passage and improving the health of stream and river ecosystems. This idea is derived in part from the extensive scientific literature documenting various effects of large (>30 ft. height) dams, along with the notion that dam removal might reverse some of these effects.”

“Large dams are known to impact river systems by altering several key parameters including: flow regimes and physical habitats, channel shape, sediment transport, water temperature and chemistry, and populations of algae, benthic macroinvertebrates, riparian vegetation, and resident and migratory fish (Poff and Hart 2002). The nature and magnitude of these effects are likely to depend, however, on dam size and other stream and watershed characteristics, so it is unclear whether the existing information on large dam effects is applicable to smaller dams. A better understanding of the effects of dams —particularly across a range of dam sizes— is needed to guide management decisions and maximize the effectiveness of river restoration projects.”

“...the impoundments formed by dams have a significant effect on water chemistry.”


Bay Nature Magazine

October-December 2009

Stanford officials have often wondered about the impacts of dam removal on riparian vegetation established on the reservoir and possible negative impacts to neotropical migrant birds that have been observed here in high abundance. In discussing the recently completed Giacomini Wetlands restoration project in Point Reyes Station, the article states that;

“Neotropical migrant birds that already breed here (Giacomimi Wetland) should become more numerous as wider riparian borders develop along the creeks.”

Searsville Dam removal would restore miles of currently buried streams, riparian forests and thicker border habitats, and increase the highly productive fringe wetland habitat that these riparian zones provide. In addition, much of the established riparian vegetation at the upper end of Searsville Reservoir could remain with the  dam removal design.


A River Runs Against It: America’s Evolving View of Dams by Bruce Babbitt, Former Secretary of the Interior


Dam Removal and Historic Preservation: Reconciling Dual Objectives


BSD Supporters

“People built those dams and people have the responsibility to take them down. To do good, you actually have to do something”. 

-Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia and Beyond Searsville Dam supporter. Below, Yvon, at the Matilija Dam removal project site talking about the destructive impacts of obsolete dams and need to take them down for an American Express Commercial. See the Dam Blog for more about Yvon and Patagonia’s support of Beyond Searsville Dam.

“Surely such a responsible university must see the wisdom and the ecological value of such an action. I fully endorse the Beyond Searsville Dam Coalition's Vision Statement.”

 -John Singlaub, Former Executive Director, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and Beyond Searsville Dam Supporter

“I am familiar with the creek.This fragile ecosystem needs all the help it can get; and Stanford would gain a lot of positive public awareness through removing the dam, and opening up the upper reaches of the creek to spawning.”

-Jim Tolonen, Chairman of the Conservation Committee, Santa Cruz Fly Fishermen


Popular Mechanics February 10, 2006


“Once past the half-century mark, dams begin to degenerate: Concrete walls degrade, earthworks erode and seep, spillway gates rust and lose tensile strength, and sediment clogs reservoirs, reducing their capacity. In the worst-case scenario, an aging dam could fail, causing catastrophic flooding.”


Stanford University Medical Center Facilities Renewal and Replacement Draft EIR


“The SUMC Sites are in a dam inundation zone from failure of the Searsville Dam. Searsville Reservoir is the major reservoir in the San Francisquito Creek watershed.  Searsville Reservoir was built in 1892 as a water supply reservoir and is in Stanford

University’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve.  Searsville Reservoir does not provide protection from flooding because it does not have an outlet works and cannot be operated as a flood control facility.  Storm water runoff can only drain out of the reservoir by flowing over the spillway at the crest of the dam.  Since the reservoir level cannot be lowered, it does not provide any flood storage or attenuation once it is filled by seasonal rains. The existing capacity of the reservoir is continually shrinking because of the sediment trapped behind the dam and has an estimated 307 acre-feet of storage capacity left of an original capacity of 692 acre-feet.”


PBS- The Dam Challenge

“Dams don't last forever. Hot and cold weather makes them crack. Water erodes their foundations. They create environmental problems. Eventually, every dam must be repaired, removed, or replaced.”


Andrew Fahlund, Senior VP for Conservation, American Rivers

“Perhaps no other injury to a river is as profound as the construction of a dam”


Dam Removal Increases Property Values!!!!

“Two new studies appearing in Contemporary Economic Policy explore the impact of dam removal on local property values and find that property values increase after dams are removed.”

“The primary conclusions that emerge from the data are that residential property located in the vicinity of a free-flowing stream is more valuable than identical property in the vicinity of a small impoundment”






“For the first time in our nation’s history, the pace of dam removal has overtaken the pace of construction as communities across the country commit themselves to river restoration, including the removal of harmful dams.”

Elizabeth Grossman, Author of “Watershed: The Undamming of America”

This release can be found in the USGS Newsroom at: http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=2631.

News Release

November 3, 2010

Most River Flows across the U.S. are Altered by Land and Water Management, Leading to Ecological Degradation

The amount of water flowing in streams and rivers has been significantly altered in nearly 90 percent of waters that were assessed in a new nationwide USGS study.  Flow alterations are a primary contributor to degraded river ecosystems and loss of native species.

"This USGS assessment provides the most geographically extensive analysis to date of stream flow alteration," said Bill Werkheiser, USGS Associate Director for Water. "Findings show the pervasiveness of stream flow alteration resulting from land and water management, the significant impact of altered stream flow on aquatic organisms, and the importance of considering this factor for sustaining and restoring  the health of the Nation's streams and ecosystems."  

Flows are altered by a variety of land- and water-management activities, including reservoirs, diversions, subsurface tile drains, groundwater withdrawals, wastewater inputs, and impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, sidewalks and roads.

"Altered river flows lead to the loss of native fish and invertebrate species whose survival and reproduction are tightly linked to specific flow conditions," said Daren Carlisle, USGS ecologist and lead scientist on this study. "These consequences can also affect water quality, recreational opportunities and the maintenance of sport fish populations."

For example, in streams with severely diminished flow, native trout, a popular sport fish that requires fast-flowing streams with gravel bottoms, are replaced by less desirable non-native species, such as carp. Overall, the USGS study indicated that streams with diminished flow contained aquatic communities that prefer slow moving currents more characteristic of lake or pond habitats.

"Management practices related to water demand continue to alter stream flows in many places," said Jeff Ostermiller, Water Quality Manager with the Utah Division of Water Quality. "Understanding the ecological effects of these flow alterations helps water managers develop effective strategies to ensure that water remains sufficiently clean and abundant to support fisheries and recreation opportunities, while simultaneously supporting economic development."

Annual and seasonal cycles of water flows - particularly the low and high flows - shape ecological processes in rivers and streams. An adequate minimum flow is important to maintain suitable water conditions and habitat for fish and other aquatic life. High flows are important because they replenish floodplains and flush out accumulated sediment that can degrade habitat.

"While this study provided the first, national assessment of flow alteration, focused studies within specific geographic regions will provide a better understanding of the ecological effects of altered stream flows, which can be more effectively applied to local water management challenges," said Carlisle.

The severity and type of stream flow alteration varies among regions, due to natural landscape features, land practices, degree of development, and water demand.  Differences are especially large between arid and wet climates. In wet climates, watershed management is often focused on flood control, which can result in lower maximum flows and higher minimum flows. Extremely low flows are the greatest concern in arid climates, in large part due to groundwater withdrawals and high water use for irrigation.

The study identified over 1,000 unimpaired streams to use as reference points to create stream flow models. The models were applied to estimate expected flows for 2,888 additional streams where the USGS had flow monitoring gauges from 1980-2007.  The estimated values for the 2,888 streams were compared to actual, measured flows to determine the degree to which streams have been altered.

This study was conducted by the USGS National Water-Quality Assessment Program, which has assessed the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of streams and rivers across the nation since 1991.

For more than 125 years, the USGS has served as the Nation's water monitoring agency, including flow and quality in selected streams and rivers across the United States. USGS continues to work closely with the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies, states and local watersheds to assure that USGS monitoring and assessments provide useful information for managing and protecting streams throughout the Nation.

Water-quality data from more than 1,300 locations, much of it in real-time, are available through USGS Water Quality Watch. Additional information about surface water, groundwater and water quality is available at the National Water Information System Web Interface. You can also receive instant, customized updates about water conditions by subscribing to WaterAlert.

From National Marine FIsheries Service- Habitat Conservation

Dam Removal Brings Life Back to River

Until recently, Maxwell Pond on the Black Brook in Manchester, New Hampshire was considered “impaired.” The state added it to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) national list of impaired waters in 2002 because the pond could not support aquatic life.

How did the pond reach this unhealthy state? The pond itself was created in the early 1900s, when a dam was built across Black Brook to create an area for ice harvesting. The pond was originally more than five acres in size, with a depth of about 12 feet. But poor stormwater controls led to excess sediment runoff into the pond.

By 2002, sediment had filled the pond: it was only three feet deep, and the water behind the dam was warm and stagnant. The amount of dissolved oxygen in the water was so low it couldn’t support aquatic life – hence its addition to the “impaired waters” list. We decided to take action: with funding from NOAA, EPA, and the state, project partners (including American Rivers and Trout Unlimited) removed the dam in February 2009.

With the dam’s removal, the pond disappeared – all the water that had been trapped behind the dam to create the pond flowed downstream. Water was able to flow downstream from Manchester to the Merrimack River for the first time in more than 100 years.

With the river flowing freely, the water temperatures dropped and oxygen levels returned to normal. In 2010, New Hampshire removed Maxwell Pond from the list of impaired waters. The river can support fish and wildlife once again

Freeing the Rogue River- 4 Dams Down Slideshow

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Here are some of the things that respected institutions, scientists, and even Stanford University staff are saying about the negative impacts of dams on our watersheds and communities, the benefits of dam removal, and the potential for removal of Searsville Dam.

The 47-foot tall Marmot Dam in Oregon was removed in 2008 to restore a free flowing Sandy River. Hundreds of other dam have been removed and hundreds more are planned for removal.