June Conservation Conversations: Understanding Dams and their Impacts

Stream restoration underway with Roaring River Dam removal

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I grew up with a skewed perspective on dams. In my mind, all dams were massive and monolithic. And that makes sense given that I grew up in Las Vegas, where Hoover Dam was a staple of the Vegas tourist agenda and landscape. A distinct memory from my childhood is a fourth grade field trip to Boulder City and the bus full of snarky seven year-olds filling the hour ride with “dam” jokes and relishing in the smug satisfaction of saying, but not saying, a forbidden curse word. 

And so, this great feat of human innovation and construction was normal. I could spout off fun facts about the time needed for the curing of the concrete, we spent summer days boating on the lake it created, and took family friends who came to visit to bask in the joy of standing in two states at once (as the dam spans the Arizona-Nevada border). 

But not all dams are the hydroelectric type. 

In the state of Tennessee, many of the dams along state waterways are low head dams. For Harpeth Conservancy’s June Conservation Conversations, we sat with Pandy Upchurch of TWRA and Rob Bullard from The Nature Conservancy who shared with us what these dams are, why they were originally built, and why their removal is so important for river ecosystems. 

A major motivation behind the advocacy for dam removal is Tennessee being a global hotspot for fish, mussel, and crayfish biodiversity. Many of these species are endemic, meaning they are found only in this region and nowhere else in the world! It is critical that we protect these species and their habitats. Dams pose a threat to this through habitat fragmentation, being a barrier to migration, and impacting water quality. 

But dam removal can be quite the process. It requires a lot of collaboration and moving parts in order to make it happen. A successful dam removal provides healthy habitats for Tennessee’s endangered species and increases connectivity of these habitats (which allows species like mussels to thrive!). 

To learn even more and hear about the dam removal examples of Harm’s Mill or Roaring River, watch the full discussion below!