Historic dams are a balancing act: Safety, cultural resources, the environment

Posted in: Cultural Resources, Energy, Water


Historic state dame in Texas
(Photo courtesy of Preservation Texas)

We know something about historic dams. Mead & Hunt’s founder, Daniel Mead, was designing dams more than 100 years ago. Today, there is increasing need to repair or improve existing dams for safety reasons or to improve ecosystems. At the same time, more dams are reaching 50 years of age and must be considered as historic properties. Balancing these important but often-competing objectives requires careful and thoughtful consideration.

Dams can be an important contribution to our history

Dams have been important to American communities for hundreds of years, as a power and water source, flood control and recreational magnet. Every year, more dams reach 50 years of age – the threshold typically used to determine if a property may be considered for possible significance under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. These dams can be important for their contribution to local history and for their engineering features.

Although dams regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are evaluated for significance under Section 106, state regulated dams are not regularly evaluated.  However, a few states have developed standards or completed inventories of historic dams to identify their most significant structures. Of the more than 50,000 potentially historic dams across the nation, only a small fraction have received historic designation or documentation. Preservation Texas, a statewide preservation organization, placed Historic Dams of Texas on its 2017 Most Endangered Places list in response to the proposed removal of several historic dams.

State agencies face a difficult choice when reconciling several important but competing priorities – structural safety of dams, improved river ecosystems, and preservation of structures important for their history and engineering heritage.

What are some potential ways to approach the problem?

Historic state dam in Texas
(Photo courtesy of Preservation Texas)

First, it’s important to inventory and evaluate state-regulated dams over 50 years of age to determine which have the greatest historical or engineering significance. Second, states or regional dam authorities can develop clear criteria and standards to weigh the relative importance of each objective against one another. Not every dam is historically significant nor will every stream markedly benefit from a dam’s removal. Finally, various disciplines and officials — engineers, historians, environmentalists — must work in partnership by learning the processes and importance of each group’s objectives. Throughout the process, public input is also crucial to understand community concerns and goals.

The 2008 report Dam Removal and Historic Preservation: Reconciling Dual Objectives, sponsored by the National Park Service and the American Rivers non-profit, is a great resource when working through state-regulated dam removal or replacement projects. I’d encourage you to download the report and consider the key lessons.

Through collaboration, it is possible to find common ground and understanding to find the right balance between historic preservation, safety, and the environment.


Rick Mitchell

About the Author

Rick Mitchell, AICP, Mead & Hunt Practice Leader for our Cultural Resources team, conducts architectural surveys and preservation planning with a focus on transportation projects. He led Mead & Hunt’s work on the Harbor Bridge project. A sixth-generation Texan, Rick enjoys discovering and documenting the state’s rich cultural and architectural history.

Read more posts by Rick Mitchell

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