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Beyond mandatory fishways: Federal hydropower relicensing as a window of opportunity for dam removal and adaptive governance of riverine landscapes in the United States

Brian C. Chaffin
W.A. Franke College of Forestry & Conservation, University of Montana, Missoula, MT, USA; brian.chaffin@umontana.edu

Hannah Gosnell
College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, USA; gosnellh@oregonstate.edu

ABSTRACT: Over the past two decades dam removal has emerged as a viable tool for ecological restoration of riverine landscapes, partially as a result of changing societal values toward the ecological trade-offs associated with dammed rivers. Dam condition, purpose and ownership are key factors that determine the legal and political processes that lead to dam removal in most cases. In the United States removals of small, privately owned dams are most common, although the most high-profile removals are associated with large hydropower dams subject to a federal relicensing process. Scholars cite this legal process for periodic re-evaluation of hydroelectric dams as an important window of opportunity for institutionalising adaptive environmental governance toward the renegotiation of social and ecological values associated with rivers. It is clear, however, that this policy process alone is not sufficient to facilitate large-scale dam removal and larger transitions toward adaptive governance. In this paper we review several high-profile cases of dam relicensing and removal in the Pacific Northwest region of the US to better understand the combination of factors that couple with dam relicensing policy to present a window of opportunity for adaptive governance and social-ecological restoration. Examples from the Pacific Northwest reveal patterns suggesting the critical role of endangered species, Native American tribes, local politics and economics in determining the future of large hydropower dams in the United States.

KEYWORDS: Dam removal, social-ecological restoration, adaptive governance, hydropower, FERC, Pacific Northwest