Future Forward Interview: When Should Aging Infrastructure Be Replaced or Removed?
Megan Lawson, Ph.D., is an economist specializing in land-use, non-market valuation and statistical models for policy analysis. She works for Headwaters Economics, an independent, nonprofit research group that works to improve community development and land-management decisions in the West, and her research areas include recreation, ecosystem services, climate adaptation, and demographic and economic trends. Megan holds Ph.D. and Masters degrees in economics from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and has a B.A. in biology from Williams College.
V1: What is Headwaters Economics, what does it do, and what are its goals?
Lawson: We are a nonprofit research organization, and our mission is to do research related to land management and community economic development, with a particular focus in the western United States. We do work on just about everything related to natural resources in the west, specifically with a focus on figuring out how to benefit the communities closest to them. It’s really our main area of research.
We’re based in Bozeman, Mont., and there are 10 of us. We are mostly geographers and economists, but we have a couple historians tossed in here as well as some data analysts. I’m one of the economists.
V1: Can you tell me a little bit about your academic background and how you got involved with Headwaters Economics?
Lawson: My undergraduate degree is from Williams College in Massachusetts in biology, and my masters and Ph.D. degrees are both in economics from the University of Colorado in Boulder. Prior to working at Headwaters, I was in the private consulting world, working on environmental policy and economics, and I’ve been here for about three years as an economist.
V1: Do you consider yourself a researcher or a consultant, or something else?
Lawson: That’s a good question. I am a researcher. In my previous work as a consultant, people would come to us with a specific question, and we would do research to answer that question. But now the work is much more driven by us, doing what we are most interested in.
V1: What are some of your key areas of research or work focus that might relate to the infrastructure and civil engineering world of our readers?
Lawson: Most of my experience working on water- and dam-related work was actually in my previous job in the consulting world. Here, a lot of my work is focused on land use and demographic change, but prior to this I did a bunch of work, for example, on the Elwha River project, on the dam-removal efforts going on there. It’s less immediately infrastructure related and more focused on the connections to economic development.
V1: There are a lot of areas in the United States labeled “crumbling infrastructure.” Why are dams so problematic? What is the current situation, and what needs to be done?
Lawson: Infrastructure and the problems related to aging cover the entire United States, rural and urban, but dam removal is particularly compelling because it has so many connections to different benefits and needs, the foremost among them being the public-safety question. As dams are aging, in many places, the population downstream is growing, so the public-safety risk is growing exponentially. Also, the connection is strong between economic and environmental benefits for river health, which has its own economic impact with benefits to commercial fisheries and recreational fisheries. It’s those links, with so many different types of benefits, that really make it a high priority.
V1: How do you decide which dams to remove or not? What are some of the key factors?
Lawson: We all know that dams are built for reasons. It’s not just recreational dam building; they’re built for specific purposes. But because of the age and often because of changing economies–for example, very old mill dams in New England are obsolete–those are the prime candidates to be removed, where they’re not actually serving the purpose they were originally used for. As your readers know, it costs money to keep these things up and maintain them and keep them from becoming a public-safety hazard, so the best candidates for removal are the low-hanging fruit, and there are a lot of them that are no longer serving their original purpose and are costing more to maintain than it would to keep up.
There are a few case studies that address that, particularly ones relatively close to river mounds, where removing these dams provides an opportunity to open up significant reaches upstream to migratory fish and other species.
V1: What are some key benefits of dam removal? You mentioned it’s actually cheaper. How do they compare to the actual cost involved in removing a dam?
Lawson: Obviously, it varies tremendously, depending on the scale of the project. In a case like the Elwha project, which involved purchasing the dams, the power plants associated with them, building a water-treatment system, these are some really ambitious projects that can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But the upside of these big, ambitious projects is that they also come with big, ambitious benefits. In those cases, the benefits have much broader reach than just the local community.
One of the ways people measure the benefits of dam removal is non-market value, using survey techniques to ask people whether or not they care about removing a dam. Would they be willing to pay to contribute in some manner to the removal of that dam project? Research studies have found that benefits can far outweigh the costs of those projects, particularly for the most-ambitious ones.
V1: When a dam is removed, is it ever replaced with a new, upgraded dam, or is it almost always to return it back toward the natural environment?
Lawson: It depends on the project. The process will show the costs and benefits of a few different options. These decisions often tilt toward removal when comparing the costs and benefits across the different options; it ends up being cheaper to just remove the dam than to make all these upgrades that need to happen for safety or to accommodate fish.
V1: What are some lessons that can be learned from dam removal that could be applied to other forms of aging infrastructure in terms of analyzing which ones need to be replaced, destroyed or how might it apply to other areas?
Lawson: My orientation is toward the rural west, where a lot of places have lost so many people that they don’t have the infrastructure they used to. When looking at something that really needs a significant upgrade to bring it to modern safety standards, it might make more sense just to decommission it, whether it’s a bridge or local roadway. The demand is no longer there.
I think everything should be decided rationally and based on a well-considered comparison of benefits and costs, but I also acknowledge that there are political considerations, that there are times a lot of it comes down to funding considerations and when different sources of funding might be available. For example, several dam-removal projects were undertaken in New England after Super Storm Sandy, because there was a bunch of federal funding available for recovery. But even when funding is available and there’s political capacity, you still have to make sure the project is worth it for the public.
The economic consideration that seems to rise to the top is this question of whether it’s less expensive to remove it or less expensive to maintain or upgrade it. Looking at a bunch of these studies, that’s the bottom-line consideration that really drives the final decision as to whether the dam will be removed or not. Sometimes it might not be less expensive to remove it, but that doesn’t mean the other benefits shouldn’t also be considered, placing a greater emphasis on effects on the community nearby, effects on recreational and commercial fishing economies, and effects on agriculture. There are a lot of other considerations that should weigh more heavily.