By Sandi Schwartz, Beth Styler Barry, and the ELC Team

Earth law—also known as ecocentric law or Earth jurisprudence—recognizes the interconnectedness of all life and seeks to protect the Earth’s ecosystems, including the preservation and restoration of free-flowing rivers. This view is rooted in a deep understanding of the vital role that rivers play in sustaining both natural ecosystems and human communities, and that rivers should be considered living entities deserving of legal rights and protections.

Since Earth law highlights our moral and sacred obligation to prevent species extinction and catastrophic ecosystem degradation, it places paramount importance on the fact that free-flowing rivers are essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems and biodiversity. They provide critical habitat for numerous species of fish, birds, mammals, and other wildlife; facilitate the natural processes of nutrient cycling and sediment transport; help regulate climate and hydrological cycles; and mitigate droughts, erosion, and some types of floods.

Juvenile Little Blue Heron hunting. Photo credit: Sam LeGrys.

Despite all these clear benefits, free-flowing rivers are increasingly threatened by human activities such as dam construction. In response to these threats, Earth law advocates for the adoption of legal frameworks that prioritize the protection and restoration of free-flowing rivers. This includes measures to recognize rivers as legal entities with enforceable rights, which will ensure the long-term health and vitality of these essential ecosystems.

The Earth law preference for free-flowing rivers is not an ideological position: clearly, there are instances where small dams, weirs, or other artificial riverine infrastructure is what’s best for ecological health or to balance ecology and human needs. Yet, in the U.S. and most countries around the world, that balance currently falls much too far on the side of preferring dams, especially in the case of massive dams that choke rivers and profoundly damage their natural life systems.

But isn’t hydropower a good idea?

Hydropower, or hydroelectric power, is one of the oldest and largest sources of renewable energy, accounting for 28.7 percent of total U.S. renewable electricity generation and about 6.2 percent of total U.S. electricity generation. Over 9,000 dams throughout the country use the natural flow of moving water to generate electricity in what is often thought of as a green alternative to fossil fuels.

While hydropower may seem positive at first glance, it has unfortunately caused well-documented harm to fish, wildlife, and humans. From the moment construction begins, dams disrupt river ecology, cause the loss of aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity, and impact people through displacement or damage to their food systems and agriculture.

The National Hydropower Association presents hydropower as “a climate-friendly energy source, generating power without producing air pollution or toxic by-products.” To be deemed green, however, energy must be produced without emitting greenhouse gasses and in a way that protects the natural environment. Hydropower does not satisfy either requirement.

Although dams provide renewable energy and store water to prevent flooding, they also worsen the impact of climate change by releasing greenhouse gasses and destroying carbon sinks in wetlands and oceans. Furthermore, they deprive ecosystems of nutrients, disrupt fish migration, destroy habitats, increase sea levels, waste water, and displace under resourced communities. Poorly maintained dams also create a flood risk, endangering lives and putting significant financial strain on local governments and industry.

Earth law takes climate change seriously, but, as documented in Environmental Protection Agency research and elsewhere, it turns out that large dams emit a huge amount of greenhouse gasses. When rivers are not able to flow freely, more carbon and methane are released into the atmosphere. See for instance this DamSense article on methane emissions from the lower Snake River dams.

Scientists estimate that the world’s free-flowing rivers transport 200 million tons of carbon to the ocean annually. Rivers dammed for hydropower are no longer part of that natural system that flushes carbon from land to the ocean, thereby reducing the amount of carbon that returns to the atmosphere in the form of heat-trapping carbon dioxide. [1]

Dam removal: major cases

Although it may seem drastic, dam removal is the most obvious and effective way to restore rivers to a free-flowing state. Since dams require ongoing maintenance and renovations, without which they threaten catastrophic unplanned breaches, dam removal can and should be considered as a viable option in far more circumstances than is currently the case. Here are a few of the major examples of completed or prospective dam removal in the United States.

Elwha River 

The Elwha River is the site of one of the biggest dam removal and river restoration projects in history, with the federal government spending over $327 million to remove the Glines Canyon and Elwha dams and regenerate the river’s surrounding ecosystem. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe fought for decades to achieve dam removal, primarily to recover salmon populations.

Despite these efforts, industrial logging in the region continues to impact the Elwha River, with trees being cut down sometimes within 1,000 feet of the river. Even though the river has been restored to be free-flowing, it will continue to suffer if there isn’t ecosystem restoration and if logging isn’t halted. Earth law advocates for holistic ecosystem restoration that continues long after a dam has been removed.

Earth Law Center (ELC) is working tirelessly with community members and partners to raise awareness about logging in the Elwha River watershed and share the importance of legacy forests. Protecting the remaining 850 acres of unprotected legacy forest on Washington State lands is critical to the state’s climate change mitigation efforts and to bringing back the natural habitat in this watershed.

On June 30, 2023, ELC, along with the Center for Whale Research and the Keystone Species Alliance, filed a notice of appeal to challenge the 150-acre “Power Plant” timber sale. The community group Elwha Legacy Forests, of which ELC is a founding member, simultaneously launched a crowdfunding campaign to buy out the extractive timber harvest lease by replacing the funds that beneficiaries would otherwise receive from the harvest. The combination of ELC’s community organizing, political pressure, and this lawsuit led to the cancellation of this sale in December 2023, with 69 acres slated for permanent protection—something almost unheard of for an already-sold tract. Learn more about our work by visiting ELC’s Elwha Legacy Forests page.

Klamath River

For nearly 100 years, dams on the Klamath River in Oregon and California have blocked salmon and steelhead trout from reaching more than 400 miles of habitat. The dams have also encroached on Indigenous cultures, and harmed water quality for people and wildlife. The Klamath Dam Removal, which began in 2023 and is currently underway, is one of the largest dam removal projects in history, aiming to restore the river to its natural state by removing four hydroelectric dams: J.C. Boyle, Copco 1, Copco 2, and Iron Gate. The decision to remove these dams was reached through a collaborative effort between Native American tribes, environmental groups, government agencies, and energy companies.

The Klamath River has long been a vital life source for the region, supporting diverse ecosystems and providing water for agriculture, tribal communities, and recreational activities. But the construction of the dams resulted in severe consequences for the river’s health and biodiversity, including disrupting fish migration, degrading water quality, and contributing to the decline of salmon populations.

By removing the dams, the restoration of fish passage is expected to allow salmon and other migratory fish species to access their historical spawning grounds upstream. This will help in the recovery of salmon populations and the overall health of the river ecosystem. Additionally, removing the dams will improve water quality and sediment transport, benefiting both aquatic life and the communities that rely on the river for drinking water and irrigation.

The Klamath Dam Removal accords with the wishes of the Yurok Tribe, members of which led the fight for it to occur. In 2019, the Yurok passed a resolution on the rights of the Klamath River that gave it legal personhood under tribal law. The resolution establishes “the Rights of the Klamath River to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve; to have a clean and healthy environment free from pollutants; to have a stable climate free from human-caused climate change impacts; and to be free from contamination by genetically engineered organisms.”

Snake River

The Snake River dam removal initiative is a contentious and multifaceted issue centered around the potential removal of four dams on the lower Snake River in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. These dams—Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite—were built in the 1960s and ‘70s primarily for navigation, flood control, irrigation, and hydroelectric power. Over the years, their environmental impacts have sparked significant debate and calls for their removal.

The primary concern for advocates of dam removal is the decline of wild salmon populations in the region, and, in turn, the decline of the Southern Resident Orca population, as the orcas depend on consuming salmon for their survival. Construction of the Snake River dams has obstructed salmon migration routes, leading to reduced spawning grounds and destruction of habitat. Removing the dams would potentially restore salmon habitats, improve water quality, and revitalize salmon populations.

In 2020, the Nez Perce General Counsel passed a resolution, which ELC helped draft, recognizing rights of the Snake River. “The Nez Perce Tribe recognizes that the Snake River is a living entity that possesses fundamental rights, in accordance with longstanding Nez Perce tribal beliefs and practices,” states the resolution. “. . . The Snake River and all the life it supports possess the following fundamental rights, at minimum: the right to exist, the right to flourish, the right to evolve, the right to flow, the right to regenerate, and the right to restoration.”

Opponents of Snake River dam removal have raised concerns about the potential economic impacts on local communities and industries that rely on the dams. This project has been in litigation under the Endangered Species Act for about 30 years. So, it was significant when, in December 2023, the Biden administration announced its support for preparing to remove the four Lower Snake River Dams in the Columbia River Basin through an agreement with four tribal nations, two states, and several conservation groups. The agreement acknowledges that Lower Snake River dam removal is necessary to restore abundant salmon and commits to a package of federal actions to pave the way for dam removal.

Yet, this drawn out pathway hinges on congressional authorization of the dam removals. In other words, we can continue to operate these relics of dominion over nature, knowing that they are a death-knell for endangered species, until Congress agrees it is time for them to go. Endangered salmon and orcas can’t wait the additional decade or two it is likely to take for Congress to act. It is our moral obligation—and really the highest law—to care for the Earth and all its species.

ELC supports a growing cohort of advocates who see a pathway toward breaching the lower Snake River dams through immediate Executive Branch action, such as an Executive Order to create a new national monument or a directive by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, to halt their operation. ELC’s Director of Legal Advocacy, Elizabeth Dunne, Esq., authored a comprehensive law review article on this topic. In it, she quotes Naxiyamt´ama (Snake River-Palouse) elder Carrie Jim Schuster:

Back on the Snake River where I was raised we lived with the fish and animals. There were lots of beavers living all over. They made pools in the streams to cleanse the water, trees grew along the river banks and cooled the water for the salmon, and we had safe places to play. But now our rivers and streams have become nothing but lifeless reservoirs and concrete canals. [2]

Can rivers have rights?

When evaluating hydropower and the use of dams through an Earth law lens, it is clear that many of the problems could effectively be addressed if rivers had rights. Certainly, hydropower plants fail to respect the rights established in the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers (Declaration), signed by more than 100 organizations from over 20 countries as part of the larger Rights of Nature movement. The Declaration acknowledges that “rivers are essential to all life by supporting a wondrous diversity of species and ecosystems, feeding wetlands and other aquatic habitats with abundant water, delivering life-giving nutrients to coastal estuaries and the oceans, carrying sediments to river deltas teeming with life, and performing other essential ecological functions.”

Photo credit: Sam LeGrys.

There are three main reasons why rivers should have rights with respect to hydropower, according to the Declaration.

Hydropower infrastructure deprives a river of its essential right to flow. According to the Declaration, “flows must, at minimum, follow natural flow patterns and be sufficient in quantity to maintain the ecosystem health of the entire river system.” Dams exist to block natural flow patterns.

Also lost to a dammed river is the right to perform essential functions within its ecosystem.  These functions include “maintaining horizontal and longitudinal connectivity, flooding, moving and depositing sediment, recharging groundwater, providing adequate habitat for native flora and fauna, and other essential functions.” Critical river functions that significantly affect the natural dynamics of downstream freshwater and coastal ecosystems cease when rivers are dammed.

Lastly, damming rivers strips them and their ecosystem of the right to native biodiversity. The global biodiversity crisis has caused an 83 percent decrease in the overall populations of freshwater species, and up to 30 percent of freshwater ecosystems have been lost. [3] Dams have a devastating effect on fish migration and significantly reduce the number and diversity of fish and other aquatic life that depend upon free-flowing freshwater. Fish migration, including that of threatened and endangered species, is brought to a halt when a river is dammed. Even when fish ladders or other “mitigation methods” are used, timely and effective upstream and downstream fish passage is drastically reduced.


Decarbonization is critically important, but if we do it in a way that continues to put short-term human benefit miles ahead of everything else, we’ll continue to see biodiversity loss, including extinctions, as well as the degradation of more of our wild places. Using dams to produce hydropower, which in effect destroys the natural flow of rivers, is not the best solution to climate change, and only creates a loop of additional environmental problems for current and future generations if not addressed.

What we have learned from the prolonged battles over dam removal is that US law lacks a voice for the river ecosystem itself. Unless changed, the legal system will continue to help maintain the status quo, to the peril of beloved and iconic endangered species such as salmon and the Southern Resident Orcas. While multi-stakeholder forums play an important role, they should not drown out the suffering of dying species and the health of entire ecosystems. If we recognize that these river ecosystems, too, have rights and that we, in turn, have a moral and sacred obligation to ensure their health and well-being, we will all thrive. Together.

[1] Valier Galy, Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink, Timothy Eglinton. “Global carbon export from the terrestrial biosphere controlled by erosion,” Nature, 2015; 521 (7551).

[2] Originally quoted in River Song, Naxiyamt´ama (Snake River-Palouse) Oral Traditions from Mary Jim, Andrew George, Gordon Fisher, and Emily Peone, collected and edited by Richard D. Scheuerman & Clifford E. Trafzer (2015) at Foreword, p. xiv.

[3] David Tickner et al., “Bending the Curve of Global Freshwater Biodiversity Loss: An Emergency Recovery Plan,” BioScience, Volume 70, Issue 4, April 2020, pgs. 330–342,

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