There are approximately 80,000 dams in the United States. While these dams can be beneficial for power generation, irrigation, recreation, and flood control, they can also impact fish species health, water quality, and flow regimes. Our team took inspiration from the balance achieved between hydropower and environmental objectives for dam removal in the Penobscot River Basin. In this basin, several dams within the watershed were selected for removal, while others were selected for expanded hydropower facilities. This balance resulted in dramatically improved fish passage without a loss of hydropower resources. Our project goal was to create a framework to apply the same “win-win” approach for another case study–the Lower Cape Fear Subbasin. Our analysis focused on a single environmental criterion (river connectivity) and the hydropower potential for non-powered dams.

What it does

Our team developed a preliminary framework for balancing hydropower and environmental objectives to prioritize dams within a watershed for removal or development. We focused on the Lower Cape Fear river basin in North Carolina. Our analysis looked at the hydropower potential of currently non-powered dams, along with the river fragmentation caused by these dams. We investigated various dam removal scenarios that would benefit the ecosystem of the basin by restoring river connectivity, while also considering the development of hydropower potential.

How we built it

Using data from Oak Ridge National Labs and The Southeast Aquatic Connectivity Assessment Project, our team used both ArcGIS and Excel to analyze the hydropower potential and river connectivity for the dams within the Cape Fear Basin. From our analysis, we created dam removal scenarios and assessed their impact on both river connectivity and hydropower potential.

Challenges we ran into

Our team is relatively new to the field of hydropower generation and dam removal. Therefore, a significant portion of our time was spent reviewing the relevant literature and speaking with experts about the complexities inherent within this topic. As a team, we struggled with a lack of familiarity with environmental and hydropower metrics. It took a lot of time and effort for us to understand what work had already been done and the myriad of factors involved in dam decision-making processes. In addition, our team members had limited coding and computer software experience. Therefore, we had to make adjustments to our project objective based on our skills and what we would be able to accomplish in the Hackathon timeframe.

Accomplishments that we're proud of

Despite our limited background experience within this subject, we have learned an incredible amount and are proud of our progress. While there is much more work to be done for dam decision-making procedures, we believe we have accomplished useful work in the past two months. The work we have done is a great stepping stone on the path to a more comprehensive, standardized dam decision-making framework that includes both environmental and energy considerations.

What's next for Hydropower: Climate Solution & Conservation Challenge

The conversation between groups invested in both the hydropower and environmental aspects of dams is a complex and controversial one. While our project team has made great strides towards reaching a framework for dam-decision making analysis that considers a variety of aspects, further work on this framework is essential. The Hackathon framework can and will be extended to add further environmental and non-environmental criteria to the analysis of the basin. In addition, our Hackathon analysis could be converted into an optimization model that would act as a decision support tool on a national scale.

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