Biggest dam removal in European history

Posted on June, 12 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 Europe so far.
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 Europe 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 removal of the Vezins dam – as well as another old, obsolete dam, La Roche Qui Boit – over the next two years will open up 90 km of the Selune river, improving water quality, allowing migratory salmon to return to their ancient spawning grounds [1], 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 and 2018 Euronatur Award recipient. “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 Selune for the first time since my grandparents were young.”

Under the EU’s water law - the Water Framework Directive (WFD) - EU governments are obliged to take measures to restore their rivers so they can reach “good ecological status” by 2027 at the latest. Removing old or obsolete dams is a highly effective way for them 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. 

“We congratulate France for proceeding with the biggest dam removal in Europe to date, and with that bring 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 include dam removal."

Artificial barriers (dams) are one of the biggest threats to river ecosystems, resulting in river fragmentation and loss of habitat connectivity. They stop the natural flow of sediments downstream and affect migratory fishes from travelling up- or downstream to complete their lifecycles. These impediments often lead to the decrease or decimation of native fish populations and can harbour other, non-native species in their adjacent impoundments. A new 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.” 
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 dams and open up 3,300 km 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. 


Roxanne Diaz
Communications Officer
World Fish Migration Foundation 
+31 6189 18 786 

Sophie Bauer
Communications Officer (Freshwater)
WWF European Policy Office    
+32 471 05 25 11

Notes to the editor

[1] 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 other recreational and touristic opportunities.
Removal of the Vezins dam, Sélune River, France
© Roberto Epple / ERN