The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation marked the organization’s 50th anniversary by granting $50 million to Resources Legacy Fund, to establish a new program, the Open Rivers Fund. The grant was made in honor of founders Bill and Flora Hewlett, who cared deeply about preserving landscapes and waterways in the West for the well-being of people and wildlife. This Open Rivers Fund will dedicate $50 million to restore the integrity of river systems and protect priority landscapes in the Western United States. Focusing primarily on opening up and restoring rivers by removing outdated and obsolete dams, our aim is to create significant economic, community, and environmental benefits.

The Open Rivers Fund is a program of Resources Legacy Fund, a nonprofit which has significant experience in developing and implementing complex conservation programs. Resources Legacy Fund has worked on river restoration and dam removal projects across the West. It has developed a systematic approach to identifying, assessing, and effectively pursuing project opportunities in collaboration with diverse interests. The Open Rivers Fund will help communities restore their watersheds by removing river barriers and upgrading river infrastructure. This is the first major fund to open up western rivers and restore them by removing barriers to healthy waters.

For 50 years, the Hewlett Foundation has been dedicated to preserving the vast open spaces of the West as unspoiled landscapes where wildlife thrives, communities flourish, and ranchers maintain their history of stewardship. The foundation has made a wide range of grants to protect the extraordinary natural resources of the Western United States and Canada, and back efforts to build broad public support and empower citizens who care about the conservation of land, water and air in the West. The Open Rivers Fund begins with three initial projects: the Matilija Dam in California, Nelson Dam in Washington, and Rogue River Watershed in Oregon.

Each project represents years, even decades, of collaboration between local groups and agencies, community members, land owners, environmentalists and others.  The Open Rivers Fund is designed to be catalytic in nature – it will jumpstart the project development and funding processes by providing resources to communities that are working to get dam removal projects off the ground and reducing the cost barriers for these projects.

Under the right circumstances, returning free flows to dam-impaired rivers can improve water quality; solve safety, sedimentation, and obsolescence problems; and enhance habitat for important aquatic and terrestrial species, while strengthening flood control, water supply, agricultural production, energy production, recreational, and other economic uses.

Restoration support focuses on leveraged investments to achieve the watershed health targets of the fund’s dam removal projects. Milestones achieved and lessons learned will contribute to future conservation programming by demonstrating how dam removal can work in concert with the broader array of conservation strategies in the western United States.

We look forward to supporting our community partners to restore free-flowing rivers throughout the West.



Why did the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation establish Open Rivers Fund?

For 50 years, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has worked in partnership with local communities to advance solutions to societal challenges faced by various communities. Over decades, the foundation has dedicated significant resources to preserving Western landscapes and waterways for the health and well-being of people and wildlife. Supporting the Open Rivers Fund is part of the Foundation’s long term commitment to protecting the values and resources of the American West. The Open Rivers Fund will support community dam removal efforts by providing critical resources and reducing the cost barrier that is often prohibitive for these projects.

What is RLF’s role in the Open Rivers Fund?

The Open Rivers Fund is a program of Resources Legacy Fund (RLF). RLF has significant experience in developing and implementing complex conservation programs and projects, and has worked on river restoration and dam removal projects over many years, across the West. It has developed a systematic approach to identifying, assessing, and effectively pursuing dam removal opportunities in collaboration with diverse interests. During the next ten years, RLF will identify potential dam removal projects—based on the local need, widespread community support and collaboration, and opportunity for multiple community and environmental benefits—and support the work of local groups and agencies in removing the dams.

How expensive is dam removal?

The cost of dam removal varies by size, age and structure of dam. While some dam removal projects are cost-prohibitive, many simply lack sufficient upfront resources to cover the initial planning, design, permitting, transactional, and outreach costs.  Even when dam removal cost itself is high, there is an array of public and private funding sources that can be assembled to bring together a viable project funding plan. In other cases, the cost of dam removal can be less than the cost of maintenance or the cost of complying with regulatory requirements. (Headwaters Economics, “Dam Removal: Case Studies on the Fiscal, Economic, Social, and Environmental Benefits of Dam Removal.” October 2016. Pp. 30-33; http://headwaterseconomics.org/wphw/wp-content/uploads/Report-Dam-Removal-Case-Studies.pdf).

Why is the Open Rivers Fund concentrated on conservation in the western part of the United States?

The Open Rivers Fund is focused on dam removal in the western United States because the Hewlett Foundation and RLF both have a long history of protecting the natural resource values and heritage of the American West by supporting local conservation efforts through strategic investments in projects that are of high priority to western communities.

How and why were the initial projects selected for Open Rivers Fund?

Projects were selected based on their community support, potential for multiple significant community benefits, including health, safety, and economic benefits, and significant long-term conservation impact, including the potential to increase ecological integrity, improve fish passage and habitat, and promote climate resilience.

Why are organizations based in California involved in dam removal projects in Oregon and Washington?

The Hewlett Foundation and RLF have been working for a number of years on conservation projects throughout the West—including the Pacific Northwest—and the larger region melds well with both organizations’ long-term commitment to protecting the values of the American West by supporting locally conceived and locally managed conservation projects.

In the context of dam removal throughout the entire country, how far can $50 million go?

This Open Rivers Fund is designed to provide catalytic funding that will ready projects to secure other necessary funding and see projects through to completion. The Fund will not cover all project costs; we expect the Fund’s most leveraged opportunities will be to support planning, design, communications, outreach and project development.

RLF will work with other public and private funding sources as well to assemble viable funding plans. The Open Rivers Fund aims to help communities overcome the prohibitive cost barriers associated with advancing dam removal and river restoration projects.

Does it make sense to remove dams in the midst of drought and attendant concerns regarding water supply?

The Open Rivers Fund will support the removal of obsolete dams that no longer provide water storage, many of which are a hazard to people and wildlife.

How does dam removal affect rivers already facing climate change impacts?

Removing dams can help alleviate flooding and build up the river’s natural resistance to climate change and extreme storms and rainfall events. As temperatures rise and habitats diminish because of climate change, healthy, functional river systems are even more crucial for the survival of species, as well as filtering out pollutants, recharging groundwater supplies, and sustaining important fisheries.

When will additional projects in other communities be announced?

The Open Rivers Fund is a 10-year program to remove obsolete, defunct, and unsafe dams. Resources Legacy Fund plans to remain engaged in and supportive of all three pilot projects through their successful completion over the next several years or more. In the meantime, Resources Legacy Fund will consider a number of additional projects west of the Mississippi River. It will review projects based on whether the project provides multiple and significant community benefits such as addressing dam safety risks, flood management, and taxpayer savings; enjoys the support of multiple community stakeholders; achieves landscape-scale conservation; supports long-term healthy watershed function; and improves river habitats and boosts climate change resilience.

Where can people learn more about dam removal projects?