Globally, countless watersheds, rivers and wetland ecosystems have become degraded, depriving us of a vast array of economically valuable ecosystem services. By coupling hydropower with techniques for river restoration, we can generate reliable, renewable power and other social co-benefits while enhancing the climate resilience and adaptability of watersheds.
Restoration Hydro is a holistic solution that can revitalize degraded watersheds — including river systems disconnected from floodplains and rivers with nutrient and sediment runoff issues — by removing existing dams, and coupling nature-based structures with fish-safe hydro turbines to provide a low-carbon energy source.
With support from the United States Department of Energy (DOE), we worked with researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, leading river restoration experts at Natural Systems Design, and recreational designers and engineers from Mclaughlin Whitewater, as well as University of California, Berkeley’s Environmental Systems Dynamics Laboratory, Small Hydro Consulting, and Wells Engineering to apply the principles of Restoration Hydro to a paper demonstration site in Virginia, United States.
The conceptual partial dam removal project would provide meaningful restoration outcomes including reconnecting 137 miles of upstream habitat for migratory fish (eel, shad, striped bass, river herring) and improved sediment transport, while replacing a recreational hazard with a world-class surfing facility — all while delivering 2.4 MW / 13 GWh of fish-safe hydro and replacing ~50% of the existing dam with a rock arch that would enable upstream fish passage.
Restoration Hydro projects generate multiple environmental co-benefits that may include habitat creation, improved water quality and sustained increases in groundwater and aquifer recharge rates. When deployed strategically at multiple sites across a basin, Restoration Hydro projects enhance river, wetland and watershed connectivity, which can help partially mitigate the impacts of droughts and floods.
When deployed in developing country contexts, Restoration Hydro can incorporate project elements specifically designed to enhance the wellbeing and livelihoods of area communities. These include linked irrigation
networks that enhance agricultural productivity, water-supply systems for sanitation and household consumption and other design elements that address various aspects of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.