Interview with Brian Graber, American Rivers

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

I have worked on more than 20 completed dam removals and am currently working on approximately 45 in process.

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 most critical step is to work with the dam owner until they consent to the project. You can’t just pick a dam and remove it. You have to have the dam owner on board. Usually it doesn’t take expensive feasibility studies to assess whether a dam owner will be amenable to removal. If they need to see an expensive feasiblity study, they usually aren’t going to consent. Presenting a well thought out set of conceptual reasons, including both economic and ecological benefits to removal, is usually enough to determine if a dam owner is truly interested.

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

Regardless of the initial impetus for discussing dam removal, projects usually come down to economics. Over the long term, dam ownership requires costly maintenance and repairs and carries liability. Dam removal is a one-time expense. In addition, there are many funding sources available for river restoration, while there are few to none available for dam repair. Considering long-term costs, dam removal will almost always be cheaper than keeping a dam.

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

I am most often working on removing dams that are no longer providing an economic purpose like water supply or flood control. However, in some cases we have replaced a dam’s uses during removal. For example, at one site, we replaced an impoundment water supply with nearby undergound tanks, which are ultimately proving to be a more reliable source of water.

5.What lessons have you learned?

I learn something new on every single project: Here are a few thoughts:
1) Perhaps the best lesson is to expect that every project is going to have some unique challenge that you haven’t faced before, from engineering constraints, to finding creative ways to replace dam uses, to regulatory challenges, to working on social issues.
2) Almost every single project is going to have some vocal opposition. You should expect it and not expect that you will be able to sway opinions despite your best public participation efforts. It seems 10% percent of the people will always disagree with you, even on projects you would initially expect to be non-contentious.
3) Have a reasonable expectation for project timing. Dam removal projects can take a long time – we start off with the expectation that it is at least a three-year process, even for a small dam.

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

Get more training in mediation, conflict resolution, and facilitation.

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

Wow, I’ve learned an awful lot from an awful lot of people while seeing them as colleagues rather than heroes. So, some of the dam removal people I’ve learned the most from: Sara Johnson, Marty Melchior, Scott Carney, Laura Wildman, Stephanie Lindloff, and Jim MacBroom.

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

We are already seeing state funding for projects decrease. State programs can provide critical non-federal match for federal grants and we are starting to see a reduction in staff time and funding from our state partners.

Dam Removal: Learning from the Pros

WRR Dec. 2008

Brian Graber
Associate Director, River Restoration Program
American Rivers
37 Phillips Place, #2
Northampton, MA 01060