Interview with Sara Strassman, PA Field Office, 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 43 projects, 28 of them removed between 2006 and 2008. Too many projects to list, but all are conducted as partnership with PA Dept of Environmental Protection Division of Dam Safety and PA Fish & Boat Commission. Some of these I was the lead project manager, others I was a funder or advisor or some combination. You can get more information on PA projects in the “Dams Slated For Removal” list that Serena McClain compiles each year.

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?

You must know who owns the dam and whether they agree to dam removal. The next steps are to see the dam, understand what it was used for and how it is currently impacting the river dynamics and ecosystem, what regulatory steps must be taken to remove the dam and who the likely project partners will be.

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

Economics and outdated infrastructure. Why maintain something that provides no services when we have relevant infrastructure in need of maintenance? Liability is also a concern of private and municipal dam owners, particularly in the case of low-head dams.

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

Generally, we are removing dams that have not served their original purpose for 50-100 years.  In a few cases, fire suppression resources were replaced following dam removal.

5.What lessons have you learned?

1-Most people will want to do something beneficial for river health if they can understand the process and if it doesn’t cost them money. 
2-Dam removal, like any other social decision-making, has tensions around economics and the distribution of real and perceived gains and losses and these tensions manifest themselves differently at every single project site.
3-It is important not to argue over emotional attachments to a dam. 

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

This is difficult to say. We are constantly refining our approach and methods to incorporate lessons learned. Some resources, like project funding, can be increased or decreased based on desired objectives and the scale of the project. The most important resource, however, is time and it is finite. Each project and every project manager must balance time spent on a variety of components with the end goal of achieving a successfully restored river. I guess the best answer to this question is that time spent putting together a timeline for the project and its various components is a worthwhile investment because it creates the best opportunity for effective time management.

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

My teammates at American Rivers who always strive for the most dynamic river that can be achieved through restoration. Scott Carney at the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, whose energy and unwavering support for dam removals have made Pennsylvania a leader in river restoration.

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

This is beyond my expertise, but I’ll give two answers and try to cover my bases! On one hand, funding opportunities through the traditional restoration funds may decrease as federal and state budgets and philanthropic giving all retract. On the other hand, economically-efficient solutions to infrastructure problems will support restoration in order to reestablish or improve ecosystem services and to eliminate the maintenance costs for infrastructure that is not serving its original purpose or whose expense outweighs its benefit. Free services provided by functioning natural environments are cheaper (and more attractive) than engineered solutions. 

Dam Removal: Learning from the Pros

WRR Dec. 2008

Sara Strassman
Associate Director, River Restoration Program
American Rivers
Pennsylvania Field Office
355 N. 21st Street, Suite 309
Camp Hill, PA 17011
717-763-0741 (tel)
717-763-0743 (fax)