Institutional analysis of small dam removals: A comparison of non-federal dam removals in Washington and Oregon

Matthias P. Fostvedt
Water Resources Graduate Program, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, USA; fostvedm@oregonstate.edu

Desiree D. Tullos
Biological and Ecological Engineering, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, USA; desiree.tullos@oregonstate.edu

Bryan Tilt
School of Language, Culture, and Society, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, USA; bryan.tilt@oregonstate.edu

ABSTRACT: The vast majority of dams in the US, and thus the majority of those removed, are small structures that are governed primarily by state and local institutions. Important differences between large and small dams suggest that the existing work on the governance of large dam removals should not be expected to explain decisions about small dam removals. It is, for example, unclear which policies and organisations drive dam removals when there is no direct federal nexus. It is also unclear how the relevant policies and organisations shape the local decision-making process and how the design of the decision-making process influences stakeholder opinions on the decision to remove the dam. The objective of this study is thus to characterise and evaluate the governance that has driven recent decisions to remove small dams. A modified version of Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis and Development framework was applied to two dam removal case studies, that of the Beeson-Robison Dam in Oregon and the Nelson Dam in Washington state. In each case, an online survey was distributed to stakeholders involved in the dam removals in order to characterise the design and costs of the governance process and to investigate how those variables were associated with stakeholder opinions on the decision to remove the dam. Results found little difference in governance processes between the two case studies, suggesting that the organisation that led the removal – a local government and an NGO, respectively – was not an important determinant in the governance process. Instead, the case studies suggest that a governance mechanism characterised by passive threat, active support led to the decision to remove both dams. It is hypothesised that a similar governance mechanism is at play in other environmental management and restoration activities. Other key findings include the high levels of satisfaction and optimism among stakeholders of both projects, likely a result of the time and energy invested in a collaborative decision-making process at both sites. Further work should be conducted to more fully characterise the governance mechanisms behind small dam removals, which may help reduce the conflicts and costs of future projects.

KEYWORDS: dam removal, Institutional Analysis and Development framework, governance, US Pacific Northwest