Biggest Dam Removal in European History Begins

Posted on 12 June 2019

In a historic moment for Europe’s rivers, the first breach was made today in the 36-metre high Vezins Dam – kick-starting the biggest dam removal in the continent so far.
This landmark event is part of a long-term project to free the Sélune River, and bring salmon, eels and other wildlife back to the river and the famous bay of Mont-Saint-Michel – a UNESCO world heritage site and one of Europe’s prime tourist attractions.

The dismantling of the Vezins dam – as well as another old obsolete dam, La Roche Qui Boit— will open up 90 km of the Selune river, improving water quality, allowing migratory salmon to return to their ancient spawning grounds, and benefiting people and nature all along the river.

“The removal of the Vezins Dam signals a revolution in Europe’s attitude to its rivers: instead of building new dams, countries are rebuilding healthy rivers and bringing back biodiversity,” said Roberto Epple, president of European Rivers Network.

“Nature can recover remarkably quickly when dams are removed and I look forward to watching salmon swimming past Mont St Michel and spawning in the headwaters of the Sélune for the first time since my grandparents were young," added Epple.

Historically, the Sélune River was home to salmon that travelled from the river mouth, near Mont Saint Michel, upstream to mate and lay eggs. However, construction of these two dams stopped the salmon from migrating and this effectively stopped the recreational and commercial harvest of them as populations collapsed. The removal of these dams will help to bring more wildlife and biodiversity back to the river along with new recreational and tourist opportunities.

Artificial barriers (dams) are one of the biggest threats to river ecosystems, resulting in fragmentation and loss of habitat connectivity. They stop the natural flow of sediments downstream and prevent migratory fishes from travelling up- or downstream to complete their lifecycles. These impediments often lead to the decrease or decimation of native fish populations.

A recent study in Nature revealed just one-third of the world’s longest rivers remain free-flowing with river “fragmentation and flow regulation are the leading contributors to the loss of river connectivity.”

Globally, freshwater species populations have declined by 83% on average since 1970. The recently approved Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report specifically recommends conserving and restoring river connectivity to boost freshwater biodiversity.

As prescribed by the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), each of Europe’s rivers must attain a ‘good’ ecological status and yet 40% of rivers fall short. Removing old or obsolete dams is a highly effective way for Member States to meet their commitments under the WFD, as it helps to restore a river’s connectivity, and facilitates the achievement of good or high status of that river or associated water bodies. It also restores biodiversity and fish stocks.

In fact, many countries in Europe are now removing dams as the economic, environmental and social benefits of doing so far outweigh the alternative of restoring the dam.

“We congratulate France for proceeding with the biggest dam removal in Europe to date, bringing hope for migratory fish species, such as salmon, eel and sturgeon," said Andreas Baumüller, Head of Natural Resources at WWF’s European Policy Office. "However, this should not eclipse the fact that many Member States are still pushing for the EU water law to be significantly weakened during the ongoing fitness check. If ever put into effect, these changes would seriously hamper positive measures taken so far to restore Europe’s rivers, which includes dam removal."

It is estimated that over 3,500 barriers have been removed across Europe including the biggest dam removal in Spain last year and an ongoing historical river restoration project in Estonia that will remove 8-10 dam and open up 3,300km of river basin. Moreover, European citizens are also donating funds to see these barriers go as a part of a larger dam removal crowdfunding campaign.

“There are tens of thousands of old, obsolete dams in Europe that can and should be removed,” said Arjan Berkhuysen, managing director of the World Fish Migration Foundation.  “We are hopeful that by removing not only big dams like this but also by removing small barriers through local efforts we can restore these important life sources.”
Preparing to start removing the Vezins dam, France
© Roberto Epple-ERN
Dam on Selune River
© Iwan Hoving
Vezins dam on the Selune river in France. The first irreparable breach in the 36 metre high dam has been made.
© Eau Rivieres Bretagne
Empty reservoir behind Vezins dam as its removal begins
© Roberto Epple-ERN