Understanding the new Corps of Engineers policy on mitigation credits and structure removal

Condit Dam

When Washington State’s Condit Dam was intentionally breached in 2011, it was at the time the largest U.S. dam ever removed.

Recently, the Army Corps of Engineers issued guidance titled Determination of Compensatory Mitigation Credits for the Removal of Obsolete Dams and Other Structures from Rivers and Streams.”  Ariel Wittenberg at E&E News has good coverage of the announcement.

This guidance should be applauded by taxpayers, developers, and environmentalists alike.  When you no longer need something in your house, such as furniture, clothing, or your collection of pet rocks, you have plenty of options to get rid of them.  But what about once-necessary and valuable infrastructure, such as dams, that are no longer needed?

With this new guidance, the Corps of Engineers has provided a roadmap for cleaning house in a responsible way.  The result is good news for everybody. Taxpayers no longer pay to maintain obsolete infrastructure. Also benefiting taxpayers, environmental restoration project cost-shares are likely to be significantly reduced as there is now a financial incentive for private industry to undertake some of these types of projects. Developers and mitigation bankers have a level playing field for assessing business opportunities. Environmentalists should also welcome the meaningful environmental benefits.

This new guidance recognizes that “one size does not fit all” and this recognition will be critical to the initiative’s success.  Thus, it is important to understand thoroughly the mitigation credit process and to explore all opportunities with the Corps for these projects.  This understanding will ensure the most positive outcome while meeting all compensatory mitigation requirements for any specific project considering unique regional considerations.

While commanding Portland District, I witnessed challenges involved in assessing public interest factor impacts, both positive and negative, when dealing with the removal of such structures from our waterways.  Two examples with positive, proven outcomes are:

  • The Westmoreland Park Ecosystem Restoration Project which is a partnership environmental restoration effort, part of which was to remove obsolete structures which served as barriers to fish passage on Crystal Springs Creek in Portland, Oregon. The removal of obsolete structures has increased access to critical habitat for endangered salmon and other species (click here).
  • The Condit Dam removal on the White Salmon River by PacifiCorps. Today, salmon have returned to historic upstream spawning grounds on the now free-flowing river. Recreational opportunities have increased as well (click here).

One risk the Corps assumes by issuing such clear guidance is that some groups opposed to existing, serviceable structures may argue the guidance should apply to all structures.  After all, the Corps has clearly laid out the environmental benefits of removal and although environmental benefits are undeniable, there are other factors that inform public benefit and safety.

In reality, this new guidance does little to inform the ongoing removal debate as it only applies to obsolete structures that no longer serve a public benefit and/or present a public safety risk. Properly permitted operational dams and structures have already gone through a rigorous environmental review process and have been determined to be in the public interest considering all associated factors.

Overall, this new guidance saves taxpayer funds, helps create incentives for removal of obsolete structures, and allows developers and mitigation bankers a more standardized process to evaluate costs and benefits of such projects.  Many of these benefits are clearly identified in the new guidance.

John Eisenhauer
Senior Advisor

A member of the Dawson team since 2014, John Eisenhauer was the 59th Commander and District Engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers Portland District.

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