Interview with Serena McClain, 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.

The majority of my work has tended to be national in scope, focusing more on communicating the broader messaging of the dam removal movement, and developing the tools that will help communities succeed in their restoration projects. That said, there are probably far fewer dam removal projects I have worked than others you will speak to. This also means I've also probably dabbled in a ton of projects in one aspect or another. Below is a list of the projects where I've done more than dabble.

Patapsco River Restoration, MD: Currently focused on the removal of the second dam, Simkins Dam, this project will result in the removal of all of the dams on the Patapsco with the exception of the uppermost water supply dam.  Status: Design plans are being developed for the Simkins removal. A feasibility study is being conducted at Bloede Dam, the first dam on the stream, by Maryland General Services. Union Dam, which has already breached, is expected to be removed this winter.

Cumberland Dam, Potomac River, MD: This project centers around the removal of the Cumberland Dam, an old Corps flood control relic that sits in downtown Cumberland. Status: A scope of work is being developed for this project and funds are being sought for a feasibility study.

Jordan Point Dam, Maury River, VA: The Jordan Point Dam is located in Lexington, VA and has been the site of several drowning deaths over the years. Following the most recent death, the father of the young boy mobilized the town (who owns the dam) and others to get the structure removed. Status: This project is currently in the design phase. A whitewater park is also being considered for the site.

Woolen Mills Dam, Rivanna River, VA: The Woolen Mills Dam was removed from the Rivanna River more than a year ago. The old, defunct structure was removed to restore migratory fish habitat and safer boating passage.

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?

The very first thing I ask when approached with a potential dam removal project is ‘why'. I want to know why the person talking to me is interested in pursuing this particular dam removal. What is their motivation? As you know, dam removals happen for a variety of reasons and can result of a myriad of benefits. By tapping into that one activist's or agency employee or dam owner's drive, their passion for the project, I can better help them out. It also allows me to then begin thinking about all of the other potential people that will be interested in project and where their interests might lie.

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

The strongest legal trigger to this day is strong migratory fish laws backed by an agency with some enforcement power. On the social side, however, I feel like the safety/economic argument sways more people.

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

That's an interesting question, and one that I think will become increasingly important as dam removal continues to advance and the strategy for which dams should come down evolves. In most of the projects I am familiar with or am more involved in, however, this has yet to be a huge factor. Not that I'm attempting to downplay it, but I just don't think it's something we're seeing in the majority of cases yet. Yet.

5.What lessons have you learned?

I know I don't have all of the answers, but that the willingness to work your ass off to find out what they are goes a long way. I've learned to accept that there is always going to be someone who disagrees with what I do or a project I'm working on, and the reasoning behind their opposition might defy logic. I have to be okay with that because I'm not going to win over everybody. I am better served focusing on what I can change and how I can help the greater project and community.

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

Monitoring. Consistently more monitoring on our earlier projects.  

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

My biggest restoration hero is Margaret Bowman. Maybe it's just that I can across her when I was at a much younger, more starry-eyed phase. I don't think so though. She was visionary and ballsy and willing to push the envelope when others weren't. She sat at the negotiating table of some of the more important dam removals at the beginning of the movement. For this she's my hero.

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

I think it will be increasingly important to build multifaceted campaigns that talk about the multiple benefits of a project. Stressing the pressure of aging infrastructure and making a strong economic (factoring in project lifecycle estimates) argument will also help make the case for continued river restoration activities.

More information: 

Dam Removal: Learning from the Pros

WRR Dec. 2008

Serena S. McClain
Associate Director, River Restoration Program
American Rivers
1101 14th Street, NW, Suite 1400
Washington, DC 20005
202-347-7550, ext. 3004