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Infrastructure in transition

On June 14, 2016, people gathered in the small northern town of Howland, Maine to celebrate a newly constructed fish-bypass around the town’s dam, signalling the end of a 16-year process that restored much of the Penobscot River. Together, the attendees planted a chestnut tree on what was to become the new waterfront park. These were new beginnings, and the completion of what many call an incredibly successful collaboration in dam-related sustainability. The Penobscot River Restoration Project (PRRP) was finally done. As the dam removal movement in the United States grows, cases like this one show the inevitable confrontations between current and past public interests that will arise. Addressing these problems won’t always be so easy.

In part, it’s because of the wide array of interest groups involved with dams. As one can expect, it’s no easy logistical feat to coordinate collaboration between landowners, public officials at the local, state and federal level, dam owners, hydropower corporations, nongovernmental organizations and people living near dams. The PRRP is so noteworthy in part because it supposedly managed to reconcile differences and integrate all views into its action plan.

But that’s not so simple. Dam removal is hardly an attractive option for many. Just like any public work of architecture, a dam can take on a somewhat symbolic role for people in towns surrounding them. Identity is built around landmarks — like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Statue of Liberty in New York. For smaller towns, dams can serve this image: the most impressive symbol of civilization and a nice construction to look at in their area.

There is a much more tangible side to this issue: the material benefits provided by a dam. In 2016, hydropower accounted for 43.6 percent of renewable electricity generation and 6.5 percent of all electricity generation in the United States. That’s hardly inconsequential, especially because the use of sources of energy may be unevenly distributed across geography. Taking out dams can be a direct threat to this method of energy production, which produces a very real economic impact on the people receiving it.

What is to be gained from dam removal can be both difficult and easy to see. If you’re not looking for it, you won’t see the that populations of fish whose migration paths were once inhibited can now freely swim greater lengths of the river. You won’t see the release of healthy sediment that has been trapped behind the dam, depriving any area downstream of materials needed to maintain the riverbank and riverbed. What is visible are changes in the landscape as the river rebounds to its natural position — the one it held before the dam was built.

Dam removal is not a black and white issue. It’s one that needs careful consideration and discussion so that all viewpoints are taken into account. As the trend moves toward removing and upgrading, we are confronted with an unprecedented issue: what does it mean to break with tradition and reverse these projects that were once considered permanent? Is this a sustainable shift, or one that divides us on socio-economic lines? The advent of more sustainable technologies will only exacerbate this issue and bring it to the forefront. Don’t expect dams to go away, but do expect to see the discussion grow wider, encompassing many more works of public energy infrastructure.

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