Student Voice Series: Death to the Deadbeat Dam

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The Minnesota Environmental Partnership is proud to feature the following post as part of a series of columns as part of a Student Voices Series issues. This is part of a continuing collaboration with Macalester College’s Geography Department and its students.

The river-damming era in this country must come to an end. We must stop building dams and we must also destroy deadbeat dams. Deadbeat dams can be defined as high-cost, obsolete dams that impose safety threats as well as damage to natural river ecosystems. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ National Inventory of Dams, there are over 75,000 dams in this country and of those, 26,000 pose significant safety concerns. These 26,000 plus deadbeat dams are falling apart, serving no productive purpose, and are consequently and shamelessly disrupting natural river ecosystems.

Back in the 1930’s amidst the Great Depression, the nation was able to overcome immense technical challenges and erect one of the greatest engineering feats in history, the Hoover Dam. This dam was not just physically impressive, standing over 700 feet tall, but also carried significant symbolic weight. Through this dam, humans were able to control and harness the power of nature to propel the nation forward. While the rationale behind such structures was to control floods and produce hydropower, we became dam crazy. In 1998, in a speech to the Ecological Society of America, Bruce Babbit, the former Secretary of the Interior, stated that for most of the 20th century, “politicians…eagerly rushed in, amidst cheering crowds, to claim credit for the construction of 75,000 dams all across America. Think about that number,” asks Bruce, “that means we have been building, on average, one large dam a day, every single day, since the Declaration of Independence.” The dam building treadmill in this country has only slowed because almost every logical spot has already been dammed.

The reality is that dams are finite structures; they cannot “live” forever. They will become obsolete. The average life span of a dam is 50 years and according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 85% of dams will surpass this lifespan by 2020. While proclaimed as technical beasts to conquer flooding and produce immense hydro power, the truth is that only 1,750 dams in this country currently produce hydropower, and the other declared benefits can be achieved more effectively than through the choking of precious river ecosystems. Damming degrades water quality, blocks the movement of nutrients and sediments, destroys fish and wildlife habitat, as well as damages coastal estuaries. We simply must put deadbeat dams to death.

This issue affects us right here in Minnesota. There are over 1,250 dams in the State of Minnesota, 800 of which are publicly owned. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the majority of public dams have already passed their 50-year mark and require much ongoing and emergency repairs to maintain their safety and structural integrity. Over $1 million is spent annually on the upkeep of these dams and it is estimated that $114 million will be necessary over the next 20 years to ensure the safety of Minnesota’s dams. If these dams are no longer safe and productive, they need to be torn down.

A debate of whether to remove or revive is currently surrounding the Lake Byllesby Dam near Cannon Falls, Minnesota. This particular dam is among those in Minnesota that has surpassed 50 years and therefore requires much repair. This 103 year-old dam has “hulking blue turbines and generators — lined with rust — [that] whir and churn, and …could fail at any moment.” Additionally, Luther Aadland, a river ecologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said that “there’s an increasing risk of [dams] failing and that becomes expensive in a lot of ways. You have downstream loss of life and infrastructure that’s destroyed.” According to these testimonials, removal seems like a reasonable route, however the decision to remove is not always straightforward. This particular dam provides both recreation and hydropower functions to the nearby communities; the flow currently creates enough energy to power 1,000 homes. This fact brings the decision into perspective and complicates any future decisions regarding this dam.

Several decades ago, the idea of dam removal would have seemed ludicrous and impossible. But it is happening, and happening more frequently. In 2011 alone, the great Conduit Dam on the White Salmon River, the Elwha Dam on the Elwha River, both in Washington, as well as the Greatworks/Veazie Dam along Maine’s Penobscot River, all came down. This scale of removal had never before been undertaken and marked an incredible milestone for river restoration. If we fast-forward to 2013 we see that over 50 dams in 18 states have been taken down, restoring more than 500 miles of stream habitat.

One of those 50 dams was right here in Minnesota. The Minnesota Falls Dam, near Granite Falls, MN was 600 feet long, 107 years old, and completely deteriorated. Within two months, the longest dam across the Minnesota River was destroyed and a river ecosystem restored. With the destruction of this dam, shovelnose, lake sturgeon, paddlefish, walleye, sauger, and flathead catfish are all now thriving, according to the Twin Cities Daily Planet, because some of the best spawning habitat in the entire river system is free-flowing once again.

If we remove dams, ecosystems will bounce back. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, once said, “don’t underestimate the regenerative power of rivers; in the end they will outlast any concrete and steel dam wall.” We must keep up the crusade against deadbeat dams that serve no purpose and kill our river ecosystems. Let’s start here Minnesota, let’s tell our representatives to reevaluate this state’s relationship with dams. Let’s tell them to take a good hard look at the Byllesby Dam and to make a decision that is economically and ecologically sound. Let’s tell them to put deadbeat dams to death!


  • Babbit, Bruce. “Dams Are Not Forever.” Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting. 4 Aug. 1998.
  • Chouinard, Yvon. “Tear Down ‘Deadbeat’ Dams.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 7 May 2014.
  • “DamNation: Lessons and Questions on Dam Removal.” International Rivers. 27 May 2014.
  • “Dams and Dam Safety in Minnesota: Minnesota DNR.” Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
  • Joiner, James. “DamNation: America’s Deadbeat Dam Problem is Government Waste at its Most Dangerous.” Esquire. 14 May 2014.
  • Nijhuis, Michelle. “World’s Largest Dam Removal Unleashes U.S. River After Century of Electric Production.” National Geographic. 26 Aug. 2014.
  • Nuchols, Emily. “New Film DamNation Takes Aim at Bringing Down Deadbeat Dams.” Beyond the Edge. National Geographic, 8 May 2014.
  • “President Barack Obama: Crack Down on Deadbeat Dams.” Damnation Film.
  • “Questions About Removing Dams.” American Rivers. <>.
  • Sorensen, Sally Jo. “Minnesota River Will Get Its Groove Back with Removal of 107-year-old Minnesota Falls Dam.” Twin Cities Daily Planet. 13 Jan. 2013.

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