More than 300 barriers were taken down last year, boosting the health of waterways and the wildlife they support, say experts.
A record number of river barriers, including dams and weirs, were removed across Europe in 2022, with at least 325 taken down in 16 countries, allowing rivers to flow freely and migratory fish to reach breeding areas.
In its annual report, Dam Removal Europe said Spain led the way for the second year with 133 removals, followed by Sweden and France. The UK completed 29 removals, including Bowston Weir, which was built on the River Kent nearly 150 years ago for a paper mill. Its removal will help restore the health of the river, which is home to white-clawed crayfish, freshwater pearl mussels, and water crowfoot (an oxygenating aquatic plant).
“These numbers make me proud because we’re doing a lot to mainstream dam removal, and it works,” said Herman Wanningen, director of the World Fish Migration Foundation (WFMF) and founder of Dam Removal Europe. “It shows countries are picking up speed on implementing this river restoration tool.”
Across Europe, hundreds of rivers are blocked by dams, weirs, culverts and levees, with 15% considered obsolete, and many at risk of collapse.
In Norway, dynamite was used to destroy a seven-metre-high dam that had blocked the Tromsa River since 1916. But the year’s largest known project was the removal of La Roche qui Boit hydropower dam on the Sélune River in France.
Two countries – Latvia and Luxembourg – completed removals for the first time. “Sometimes the smallest projects make a difference for an entire country,” said Wanningen.
One of the more surprising removals was the obsolete Bayurivka dam in Ukraine, where WWF-Ukraine’s river restoration work continued, despite the war. Taking out the abandoned six-metre-high dam, in the Carpathian mountains of Verkhovyna national park, opened 27km of the Perkalaba River to migratory fish for the first time in 120 years and removed the risk of it collapsing.
“By removing Bayurivka, we hope the river has a chance to again become a biodiversity hotspot,” said Oksana Konovalenko, WWF-Ukraine’s freshwater practice lead. “Protected fish species, including brook trout, Danube salmon, and Ukrainian lamprey, are expected to return upstream and attract fish-eating animals, such as brown bear, otters and various bird species.”
Almost 75% of the barriers removed were weirs, followed by culverts and dams. At least 10 hydropower dams were dismantled in England, Finland, France, Norway, Spain and Sweden.
The number of removals was a 36% increase from the previous year when there were 239 removals.
“Removing barriers to restore rivers’ natural flow and connectivity brings many ecosystem service benefits, such as flood protection, water purification, and recreational opportunities,” said Wanningen.
With an estimated 150,000 old and obsolete dams and weirs across Europe, there is still a long way to go. “Dam removals are still controversial,” said Wanningen. “Some countries haven’t even started yet, because the topic is too sensitive to talk about. Hydropower companies don’t like seeing their dams going down, though [they] weren’t economically viable any more. Local villagers are worried there will be more flooding, even though removing dams creates more space for flooding if done properly. It’s a matter of providing the right information and making sure politicians and citizens understand why unnecessary dams should be removed.”
The year-on-year increase in removals is expected to continue in 2023, as the argument for freeing rivers gathers momentum. “I hope the European Commission accepts the new Nature Restoration Law this summer, which will give a solid policy base for member states to implement dam removal to restore 25,000km of rivers and maybe more,” said Wanningen. “And I hope we can keep this amazing movement growing.”