Interview with Laura Wildman, American Rivers

Monday, December 15, 2008

1.Please provide a list and very short summary of the project(s) you have worked on and their status.

I have worked on about 125 dam removal projects in one capacity or another from inception, planning, alternatives analysis, feasibility studies, technical oversight/assistance, scoping, field work, engineering design, environmental analysis/permitting, sediment analysis/management, project bidding and construction management/oversight. Therefore it is a bit hard for me to answer this question quickly or easily. I of course can give project names, location and status on almost all of them but that would take forever, so if you need more from me here you can call me and we can determine if there is anything easy to send you.  Many have already come out, some never came out and may never come out, some are under preliminary investigation, some are in one of the later phases of design and permitting, and some either just came out or are being removed currently.

2.When approaching a dam removal project, what is the first thing you have to know, the first step, the first thing one should tackle?

Who owns the dams, what are they using it for or what do they plan on using it for. The next question might be, if the owner doesn't want it is their another financial responsible party that does. Both of these, along with the current condition of the dam and the cost to repair and maintain it might end up driving your discussion.

3.Considering all the cases you've encountered, what makes the strongest argument for removal?

Dam Safety: which includes dam condition, cost for repairs, cost of maintenance, and potential risk to life & property (both through potential breach & attractive nuisance issues). Therefore dam safety is always linked to economics and liability.

4.In your campaign(s), how important was it to have alternatives or replacements for what was lost in dam re-operation or removal?

Often not critical since the majority of dams have no longer served obvious economically viable purposes other than perhaps perceived aesthetic and historic value. This may not be the case with larger dams world wide but is typically the case with small dam removals in the USA.

5.What lessons have you learned?

1. Don't underestimate the power of public opinion/perception (be it right or wrong). Therefore be prepared to deal with an often-slow public education process on dam removals that catch the public eye. Often the numbers and facts alone will not convince anyone.
2. Also watch out for unknowns during the process (during planning, while working with the public, during permitting, during design, and especially throughout construction).
3. Sometimes overanalyzing the project in the end will tell us little more than what and educated eye (someone with significant dam removal experience) could have told you from day one. Therefore I rely more heavily on good field investigation and solidly conceived conceptual design concepts, than I do on the results of complex models and endless studies.
4. The history of the river extends far beyond man's perception of history.

6.If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?

For dam removal: I would taken even more pictures before after and during from monumented photo-point locations.
For River Restoration: I would have used less and pushed less the concept of instream habitat structures or any structures. And instead added building blocks to the river without the compulsive human need to fix everything in place (if we have designed it). Rivers need to move and often with river restoration less is more.  When we back off and give the river more room (protect river corridors). We often do more bad than good when we constantly tinker with rivers (the exception here being the removal of structures, barriers and obstructions from river corridors or the restoration of more naturalized flow regimes).

7.Who are your river restoration heroes, and why?

James MacBroom (of Milone & MacBroom in CT), because he taught me almost everything I know about rivers and because he would be restoring rivers whether he was paid for it or not. And Mike Kline (with the state of VT) because he thinks outside of the box and really understands the benefit of giving the river room to be a river. Both men also easily admit past mistakes and thereby allow us to learn by teaching us about their professional evolution (we all have a learning curve when it comes to working with rivers.)

8.Do you anticipate any repercussions for river restoration efforts from the financial crisis?

Yes. Financial insecurities lead to less donations to environmental causes and less government spending to protect and restore natural systems.

More information: 

Dam Removal: Learning from the Pros

WRR Dec. 2008

Laura Wildman
Chief Engineer, American Rivers
20 Bayberry Road, Glastonbury, CT 06033