William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review


Dams have played an integral role in the development and economic growth of the United States for centuries, and remain important fixtures in water and energy management. However, after standing for decades, aging dams across the country are deteriorating or creating harmful environmental impacts that have made them sources of contention in many river basins. Calls to remove certain dams have been growing and in recent years have particularly intensified with respect to some large federally owned or regulated hydroelectric dams. These larger dams are subject to ongoing environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. Nonfederally owned dams also are subject to review through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing process, and federally owned dams are reviewed by the agencies that own and manage their operations, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or Bureau of Reclamation. As dams age, these environmental reviews are generating increasing discord and litigation among dam operators, landowners, local communities, Native American Tribes, and environmental activists. Fortunately, as experience in other areas of natural resource management has shown, collaborative governance regimes that replace or supplement traditional agency decision-making can often reduce conflicts in large multistakeholder settings. Among other things, well-structured stakeholder collaboration schemes tend to incorporate more diverse perspectives and increase public acceptance of agency actions. Recognizing these potential advantages, this Article argues that federal agencies should reshape dam relicensing and reevaluation policies to incorporate more collaborative elements and outlines specific strategies for pursuing that goal.