Congressional legislation that would make the process of removing local dams easier for the Army Corps of Engineers is awaiting President Donald Trump’s signature.
The America’s Water Infrastructure Act contains more than 5,000 sections, including one that, according to Michael Hensley with the Nature Conservancy, clarifies a legal question that’s been preventing the Corps from removing Barren River Lock and Dam No. 1, also known as the Greencastle Dam, and Green River Lock and Dam No. 5.
Hensley said the Corps wants to remove the dams because they have not been used for their intended purpose of facilitating river navigation in more than 50 years.
“These are dams the Corps has to keep on the books that are not serving their intended function,” he said.
Hensley said the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, which was signed into law in 2016, created confusion with wording that called for the Corps to convey property rights to locks and dams to other entities before removing them.
The WIIN Act calls for Green River Lock and Dam No. 5 and the Greencastle Dam to be transferred to the state.
According to Hensley, the wording in the newly drafted AWIA clarifies that the Corps can maintain ownership of the dams while other entities remove them. “Despite the 2016 law being passed, the Corps wasn’t sure if they were allowed to still own the dam while another partner removed it,” he said.
According to Hensley, the Corps maintaining ownership of dams during the removal process is intended to streamline the removal process and free outside groups from liability.
“For anyone other than (the Corps) to take ownership of a dam on a fairly major river is a pretty substantial undertaking from a liability standpoint,” he said.
Transferring ownership of the property could also be a lengthy process that might considerably slow removal operations, Hensley said.
“Not having to transfer the ownership will make the process more streamlined,” he said, adding that the Corps still intends to transfer ownership of the land the dams are built on to local partners like county governments that could use the land as public access points for people interested in using the river for activities like water sports.
Nathan Moulder, a project manager with the Corps, said the agency will examine the bill once Trump signs it into law.
“Once it’s signed, our headquarters will do an analysis on impacts,” he said.
Until the Corps’ analysis is finished, Moulder said he can’t comment on the impact the AWIA would have on local dam removal efforts.
Michael Hensley said a study to determine the environmental impacts of removing Lock and Dam No. 5 is now being conducted.
While there is no study currently being conducted to determine the environmental impact of removing the Greencastle Dam, it is at risk of a structural failure, Hensley said.
“That dam is not in good shape right now,” he said. “It is sagging in the middle, it has water coming through it, it has water coming under it.”
Hensley said the removal of the dams will improve “the health of the river,” though he noted it is better to remove the dams in an ordered and premeditated way, rather than removing one after a structural failure, as occurred with Green River Lock and Dam No. 6 in 2016.
According to Hensley, sections of rivers that flow freely have healthier fish populations than areas most closely impacted by a dam.
“When you get a dam out, you’re restoring a river to what it is naturally like,” he said.
Hensley also said he anticipates restoring a river’s natural flow to be a boon for tourism in affected areas because it makes for better canoeing and kayaking.
“Long term, it’s going to be a good economic story and a good environmental story, too,” he said.
Helen Siewers, director of Cave Country Trails, a group dedicated to coordinating a network of outdoor trails, including riverbound “Blueways” in the Mammoth Cave area, said she also anticipates an increase in tourism if local rivers are opened up for paddling.
“The interest in and popularity of paddle sports has grown in recent years,” she said. “If there are more areas of free-flowing rivers with access points ... that demand can be met along a longer stretch of river.”