Free the Rivers! Hewlett Gives Big to Bust Open Old Dams

During the 20th century, America loved to build dams. Especially between the 1920s and the 1980s, we pumped hundreds of billions of dollars to dam rivers all over the country for a variety of reasons. 

As the financial, environmental, and social costs became less acceptable, the practice leveled off, and in the past 10 years, there's been a nationwide push to dismantle obsolete, crumbling dams and restore rivers to their natural states. We just don't need them—only 3 percent of dams in the country are used for electricity, and many no longer serve their intended purposes.

According to the nonprofit American Rivers, 1,300 have been removed from 1912 to 2015, with removals increasing significantly in the past decade. But while the dam-building boom had massive federal funding behind it, funding for removal is a lot harder to find, even when there's public will. 

That’s the backstory to a new $50 million grant from the Hewlett Foundation, which will create the Open Rivers Fund to support dam removal projects in the American West over the next 10 years. The fund will be operated by Resources Legacy Fund, and overseen by a nine-member advisory committee made up of academics, consultants and legal experts. 

Related: "Extremes Are Becoming the Norm." Why Water is the Next Big Issue For Philanthropy

Philanthropic dollars have gone toward dam removal projects before. Packard, for example, partially funded the removal of the San Clemente Dam in California, and there are many examples of local or regional foundations supporting dam removals within their geographies. American Rivers is a common national grantee working on the issue. But this is the largest such fund dedicated entirely to dam removal, according to Hewlett, and is unique in its broad geographic focus. 

Resources Legacy Fund is a nonprofit that acts as a sort of facilitator for environmental philanthropic projects, which it refers to as "donor-driven conservation." Foundations come to RLF with their goals, and the organization carries it out. RLF has been very active in California coastal protection, and is a darling for massive environmental funders like Packard, its biggest supporter. The nonprofit has previously worked on dam removal projects in the West.

This grant is a big move for Hewlett’s already sizable environment program, which awarded $156 million to grantees in 2015. The program is split between climate and energy (it’s one of the country’s largest clean energy funders), and Western conservation. The grant is also timed to celebrate the foundation’s 50th anniversary. 

Hewlett is quick to point out that the aim is not to steer communities toward dismantling their dams, but rather to step in when there is widespread community support, but a lack of funds. You can imagine potential for serious pushback were a national foundation to jump in on such a project ahead of local backing, and Hewlett will likely run into some friction regardless. So the fund will identify regions where there’s well-established local backing and collaboration. Its first projects include the Matilija Dam in California, the Rogue River Basin in Oregon, and the Nelson Dam and Yakima River Watershed in Washington.

The fund is also not intended to bankroll entire projects, but instead to jumpstart projects, removing upfront financial barriers and getting other funding mechanisms moving. 

The San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River is a good past example of how such efforts unfold. Dismantled in 2015, it took several government agencies, private backers, nonprofits, and donors to cobble together the funding and collective impetus to make it happen. 

Dam removal is an interesting case study in how philanthropy can contribute to the country’s widespread infrastructure needs, providing momentum and funds where there’s no default agency or pool of public funds available. Ambitious 20th century public works projects shaped much of the country, especially the West, but as we’re now tasked with undoing or course-correcting some of them, that kind of funding can be much harder to find.