Nation on the verge of ‘new era in modern river management’

As America celebrates the bicentennial of Lewis & Clark’s epic journey up the untamed Missouri River, the nation finds itself on the verge of a new era in modern river management, one in which proponents of environmental protection and ecosystem restoration stand on equal footing with those of the hydropower, barge and boating industries.

Lowry explores the dynamics behind efforts to restore rivers.

In a new book, Dam Politics: Restoring American Rivers (Georgetown University Press, 2003), noted environmental politics expert William R. Lowry explores the dynamics behind recent efforts to restore American river systems to a more pristine state, including detailed case studies of eight recent restoration attempts, such as the experimental return to seasonal water flows on the Colorado River and dam removals on the Kennebec and Neuse rivers.

“Building dams and taming rivers has been part of American culture for much of the nation’s existence, but in the last few years we’ve seen a dramatic shift in public attitudes toward river management,” said Lowry, author of several books on environmental policy and associate professor of political science in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“People now realize that dam removals and other river restoration projects are no longer the futile dreams of a few rabid ecologists,” Lowry said. “Dams that once seemed invincible have fallen to public pressure and been removed. It’s a trend that is bound to accelerate in coming years.”

Lowry is not out to dismantle every lock and dam in America. He admits that many dams offer benefits that outweigh their adverse environmental impacts. At the same time, he argues that some of the nation’s largest and most expensive dam projects were clearly ill-conceived and unnecessary from the start. It’s a view that is slowly gaining acceptance, even among interest groups far outside traditional pro-environment circles.

William Lowry Ph.D.

“At any one time, all across America, there are dozens of cases bubbling up in which groups are pushing for the removal or alteration of dams and dikes and other structural adjustments intended to restore rivers to a more natural, free-flowing condition,” said Lowry. “As we enter the 21st century, river management priorities are shifting in ways that recognize the importance of rivers as natural ecosystems.”

When it comes to weighing the costs and benefits of locks and dams, America has much to consider. Nearly every major river system has at least one substantial dam in place; recent federal inventories indicate the nation has more than 75,000 dams of at least five feet in height. While new dam projects continue to be proposed, the clamor for removal or modification of existing dams grows louder by the day.

Lowry’s research has uncovered a long and growing list of river usage battles now brewing across the nation, including highly contentious proposals to alter water flows on the Missouri River and in the Florida Everglades, as well as smaller skirmishes over restoration initiatives on the Rio Grande, Yellowstone and Columbia rivers.

Lowry’s book provides a primer for anyone wishing to better understand complex factors likely to influence the outcome of the nation’s ongoing river restoration controversies. It also offers an overview of new ideas, new strategies now being proposed as possible ways of using our rivers more wisely− concepts such as conjunctive water management, adaptive management, alternative licensing processes and water marketing.

While environmentalists have been fighting dam construction projects for decades, what’s new and fascinating, suggests Lowry, is that ecological interests finally are beginning to win pivotal and precedent-setting victories in some highly controversial river restoration battles.

In 1998, for instance, the removal of a hydropower dam on Maine’s Kennebec River marked the first time that a public movement forced removal of a privately owned dam, despite strong opposition by the dam’s ownership. While this case received tremendous media attention, another important dam removal case actually occurred the previous year to much less fanfare. On North Carolina’s Neuse River, scientists worked with power company officials and others to cooperatively remove a dam in 1997 that had blocked hundreds of miles of spawning grounds for American shad and other species. On both the Neuse and the Kennebec, fish are now returning in numbers that have not been seen in decades.

Lowry’s river restoration case studies, such as the failed attempt to restore salmon runs on the Snake River, are based on an exhaustive review of documents, reports and other historical material, as well as hundreds of interviews with key policymakers, tugboat captains, conservation agents and others on the front lines of river management. Presented in a rich, narrative style, the book is sprinkled with offbeat cultural commentary on the importance of rivers in American life, including references drawn from the songs of Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen and John Prine.

Although the book offers compelling evidence that we are indeed moving into an era of restoration (defined in part as removing dams but also as restoring the water quality, seasonal flows, and natural habitat that existed before structural changes to the rivers), Lowry’s primary objective is an improved understanding of the political circumstances that can affect the degree of restoration.

As the unifying, theoretical core of Dam Politics, Lowry offers a simple four-square, analytical framework for understanding how rivers interact with politics and public policies, showing, for instance, that the success or failure of a restoration efforts often hinges on factors such as the availability of scientific evidence in support of river modification; complexity of proposed changes; physical differences in the rivers themselves; and political differences among groups that use them.

The politics of river restoration run deep, and it is politics, argues Lowry, that will ultimately dictate the success or failure of restoration efforts.

“Dam Politics is a comprehensive, perceptive, and lively analysis of an exciting new era in river and ecosystem restoration policies,” said Michael E. Kraft, Herbert Fisk Johnson Professor, Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. “Lowry’s conceptually rich and insightful investigation of major cases in dam removal and river restoration efforts across the United States is a significant contribution to scholarship on environmental politics and policy. The book’s analytical framework, integrating ideas from policy implementation, protection of common pool resources, and the role of advocacy coalitions, explains much about the variation in policy change across different river systems, and has considerable utility as well for other studies of environmental policy change.”