EPA FAQ on dam removal projects

Friday, January 6, 2017

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released a document answering "Frequently Asked Questions" about the removal of obsolete dams

As noted by EPA, dams "provide important societal functions for drinking water supply, flood control, hydropower generation, and recreation."  EPA estimates that the U.S. is home to between 2,000,000 and 2,500,000 dams -- but that between 75% and 90% of these dams "no longer serve a functional purpose."  Given the expense of maintaining dams and their safety, and some negative social and environmental impacts of dams, there is some pressure to remove obsolete dams.  According to EPA, over 1,300 dams have been removed in the U.S. since the early 1900s, with over 60 removals in 2015 alone.

EPA framed its dam removal FAQ in this context, noting that its answers to these questions would support dam removal efforts.  The FAQ addresses 20 distinct topics, ranging from dams' impacts on water quality, permitting issues related to dam removal, and EPA-related funding that could be used to support dam removal.

For example, the FAQ discusses permitting under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, including the use of individual permits or general permits, including Nationwide Permits.  The FAQ encourages project proponents to work closely with the Army Corps of Engineers regarding Section 404 permitting.  It describes how EPA would evaluate specific requirements for monitoring or testing, such as in the case of contaminated sediments behind the dam.  The FAQ also discusses other permitting requirements, such as state-issued water quality certifications pursuant to Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, and evaluations of consistency with coastal zone management plans under the Coastal Zone Management Act.

The FAQ also notes that various grants may be available for dam removal projects.  For example, grants under Section 319 of the Clean Water Act can be issued to states, territories, and tribes for dam removals.  EPA's Five Star Wetland and Urban Water Restoration Grant Program could also provide funding for river, wetlands, riparian, forest and coastal restoration, and wildlife conservation.  Other funding, such as under the Wetland Program Development Grant program, is available to build technical and programmatic capacity of state and tribal water agencies.  Finally, the FAQ notes that dam removals could be part of a Supplemental Environmental Project proposed in settlement of an environmental enforcement action.

As noted by EPA, the FAQs released in December 2016 do not impose legally binding requirements on anyone, and EPA retains the discretion to adopt approaches on a case-by-case basis that differ from those described in these FAQs where appropriate.  Nevertheless the document provides dam owners, regulators, and communities guidance on how EPA views dam removal proposals.

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