July 15, 2021

Wyden, Colleagues Introduce Bill to Improve Dam Safety, Modernize Hydropower, Restore Rivers

Twenty-First Century Dams Act would also assist with removing unnecessary dams, restoring rivers

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Gary Peters (D-MI), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) today introduced a bill that would invest $21.1 billion to enhance the safety, grid resilience benefits and power generating capacity of America’s dams and provide historic funding to remove dams that are no longer necessary.

Companion legislation to the Twenty-First Century Dams Act, was introduced last week in the House of Representatives by Representatives Annie Kuster (D-N.H.) and Don Young (R-Alaska).

“In order to support the production of hydropower in Oregon and across the U.S., there must be a concerted effort to modernize dams across every nook and cranny of the country,” Wyden said. “The Twenty-First Century Dams Act is a bipartisan push to do just that, investing over $25 billion to enhance dam safety, improve hydroelectric generation and reconnect thousands of miles of streams through voluntary removal of aging dams.”

In the United States there are more than 90,000 dams, including 6,000 “high-hazard” dams that have poor, unsatisfactory or unknown safety ratings that without rehabilitation would pose a threat to human life if they fail. Many dams that generate hydropower are aging and need upgrades to continue providing an essential baseload source of renewable energy. Hydropower is responsible for 6 percent of U.S. electricity production and more than 90 percent of U.S. electricity storage capacity. Additionally, some of the nation’s dams have outlived their useful life and should be removed to restore rivers to their natural state.

The Twenty-First Century Dams Act would:

  • Improve public safety: Invests in state dam safety capabilities, expands grant funding for the rehabilitation of existing dams and makes available low-interest loans to rehabilitate non-federal dams.
  • Enhance clean energy production and grid resilience: Invests in existing federal dams to improve their safety and renewable energy generating capacity.
  • Restore river ecosystems: Authorizes an interagency and stakeholder advisory committee to help administer a public source of climate resilience and conservation funding to reconnect 10,000 miles of rivers through the removal of 1,000 dams with owner consent.

This legislation builds on the negotiations and lessons learned from Stanford University’s Uncommon Dialogue and puts them into action to ensure dams are safe for our communities and designed and operated to meet the climate, economic, and environmental needs of the 21st century.

“It’s shocking that in California alone, we have 89 dams that are in less than satisfactory condition and pose a serious risk to the neighboring communties,”  Feinstein said. “The cost – particularly to human life – of a dam collapse would be catastrophic. We can’t ignore this problem. Our bill takes immediate action to repair and modernize certain existing dams and remove those that have outlived their usefulness. It would also make a significant investment in developing more hydropower generation, a critical part of a comprehensive climate strategy and meeting our energy needs.”

“There’s no question about it: we must do more to modernize our nation’s water and power infrastructure to protect public health, safety, and our environment,” Padilla said. “This bill will help prevent another Oroville, improve grid resiliency, modernize existing hydropower generation, and improve the health of our nation’s rivers and ecosystems. By removing harmful and obsolete dams in California that threaten endangered species, and bolstering the safety and clean energy potential of existing dams, we can ensure healthy ecosystems, keep our communities safe, and combat the climate crisis. This legislation was born out of a landmark agreement between industry and the environmental community – the type of coalitions we need to build as we move forward with ambitious infrastructure legislation that protects communities and addresses the climate crisis.”

The bill is supported by: The Nature Conservancy, American Society of Civil Engineers, Low Impact Hydropower Institute, American Rivers, Association of State Dam Safety Officials, Hydropower Reform Coalition, National Hydropower Association, World Wildlife Fund, Hydropower Foundation, Rye Development, Hydropower Reform Coalition, Union of Concerned Scientists and Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

“The major agreement we brokered last October between the U.S. hydropower industry and environmental community has led to an exciting opportunity to address climate change and the health of our nation’s rivers through the ‘3Rs’ – rehabilitating some of the nation’s 90,000 dams for safety, retrofitting some for power and removing some for conservation,” said Dan Reicher, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy, senior scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute, and founding executive director of the Stanford Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance. “The 3Rs legislation now introduced in both the Senate and House will help seize this terrific opportunity, with great upside for people and the planet.”

 “Hydropower’s existing fleet plays a significant role in America’s clean energy infrastructure, and will play a critical role in achieving President Biden’s goal of a zero-carbon electricity grid,” said Malcolm Woolf, CEO and president of the National Hydropower Association. “With the right tools, we can optimize generation efficiency and output, make environmental enhancements and bolster dam safety – outcomes that will lead to more clean energy and healthier rivers. The hydropower industry, along with the river and climate communities, have found common ground to address the nation’s 90,000 dams, and we applaud Senators Feinstein, Padilla, Wyden, Stabenow, Peters, Gillibrand and Bennet for leading a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the performance of the existing hydropower fleet.”

“Healthy, free-flowing rivers are essential to our future as we face the challenges of climate change. Investing in dam removal and river restoration will revitalize ecosystem health, improve public safety and strengthen communities,” said Tom Kiernan, president, American Rivers. “We applaud Senators Feinstein, Padilla, Wyden, Stabenow, Peters, Gillibrand and Bennet for recognizing the need to improve the safety and management of dams, and for prioritizing healthy rivers. We urge Congress to enact all of the elements of this important bipartisan package together.”

“The Twenty-First Century Dams Act addresses our nation’s more than 90,000 dams targeting investments to ensure they are safe for our communities and can meet the energy and environmental needs of the 21st century. The Act also supports a historic investment to restore at least 10,000 miles of free-flowing rivers, emphasizing the critical role healthy freshwater ecosystems play in allowing people and nature to adapt to a changing climate,” said Tara Moberg, global freshwater advisor, The Nature Conservancy. “Taken as a comprehensive package, these are critical and timely infrastructure investments, and we’re grateful for the leadership of Senators Feinstein, Padilla, Wyden, Stabenow, Peters, Gillibrand and Bennet to make sure they are on the table.”

“The Twenty-First Century Dams Act is an important step for our freshwater ecosystems,” said Jeff Opperman, global freshwater lead scientist, WWF. “This legislation would make critical investments in river restoration while contributing to solving the climate crisis and moving us further down the road toward smart infrastructure. These benefits will be seen across the U.S., and also serve as a model for how communities around the world can craft solutions to find a better balance between river systems and water management infrastructure.”

“We have no doubt that the goals of this landmark proposal are achievable,” said Shannon Ames, executive director, Low Impact Hydropower Institute. “Environmental and safety investments in dams have fallen behind where they haven’t been specifically incentivized or valued by the marketplace or regulatory policy. This bill will go a long way to closing the gap between what we have and what we need for more adaptable, responsive, safe, and protected river systems. We are grateful that Senators Feinstein, Padilla, Wyden, Stabenow, Peters, Gillibrand and Bennet have taken the lead on this important effort.”

 “Deficient and unregulated dams pose a public-safety threat to thousands of U.S. citizens, their property, and the environment,” said Lori Spragens, executive director, Association of State Dam Safety Officials. “Recent dam failures and incidents show the urgent need for stronger state and federal dam safety programs and policies to ensure the safety of communities living near dams. ASDSO applauds Senators Feinstein, Padilla, Wyden, Stabenow, Peters, Gillibrand and Bennet for introducing legislation to address this public safety need.”

“ASCE fully supports increased investments in our nation’s dams, which are largely overlooked when infrastructure needs are addressed,” said Jean-Louis Briaud, Ph.D., P.E. “Chronic lack of investment in the nation’s 91,000 dams has led to the sector receiving a ‘D’ grade in the 2021 ASCE Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, as more than 2,300 high-hazard dams are now considered deficient. By prioritizing dams, including the National Dam Safety Program and the High Hazard Potential Dam Rehabilitation Program, we can help keep communities safe and protect the environment.”