Laura Wildman’s Passion for River Restoration Traverses the US and Europe

Dam removal is being prioritized for river restoration across the globe, and Laura Wildman, vice president of ecological restoration at Save the Sound, plays a critical part in these projects in the US and Europe. She recently took a trip to Kobarid, Slovenia to visit the River Soča with Open Rivers Programme, a European funding organization, to assess how local organizations might remove a dam on this turquoise-blue river. 

“Twice a year, Open Rivers hosts an in-person meeting to discuss the applications submitted for dam removal funding and to visit the location of a proposed dam removal project in Europe ,” says Wildman. “Being onsite helps us ecosystem engineers and fluvial geomorphologists understand the features of the river and nuances that you just can’t grasp by reading a written proposal. While onsite, we oftentimes answer questions and talk through the challenges of the proposed project with the applicant to improve their proposal and work towards an actionable plan to remove the dam in question.” 

While in Slovenia, Laura and the rest of the Open Rivers team had their meeting at a kayaking camp on the River Soča, immersing them in both the natural system and the community’s culture that are shaped by the river every day.  

The cabins (left) at the river’s campground that Laura (center) and the Open Rivers Programme team had their meetings while visiting the River Soča (right).

“The community around the River Soča is very much an outdoor community,” says Wildman. “Paddling the rivers, hiking the river’s trails, and mountaineering in the Julian Alps where the River Soča starts, are all deeply embedded in the heart of not just Kobarid, but the whole of Slovenia.”

Karolina Gurjazkaite and Gwen MacDonald of Open Rivers Programme walk down a river trail.

Many rivers in eastern Europe, where the group visited, are threatened by the installation of hydropower dams that would submerge natural floodplains and create barriers to wildlife and people. In fact, even the campground that the meeting was held at could become submerged if a newly proposed hydro plant is developed in the Kobarid area on the River Soča. Removing dams on this river and advocating against the installation of the thousands of hydropower dams threatening river connectivity across Europe, especially in these eastern European countries, restores ecosystem benefits and preserves the river culture of these countries. 

A popular section of the River Soča for shopping, dining and night life in Ljubljana highlights how people are closely connected to rivers in Slovenia.

“By funding the removal of dams that no longer make sense, we are also fighting against the degradation of the riverine ecosystem and restoring natural systems,” says Wildman. “Open Rivers Programme has already removed 28 dams, and these projects serve as successful case studies for why we should keep rivers as free-flowing and natural as possible.”  

Laura’s decades of applied dam removal and restoration experience coupled with the diverse skill sets from the environmental scientists, lawyers, and government professionals create a grant selection panel of the Open Rivers Programme that literally thinks of everything when reviewing dam removal proposals.  

“I am so lucky to be able to work with such a diverse, kind, and dedicated team at Open Rivers,” says Wildman. “You might think that a grant selection panel for dam removal projects should be entirely made up of dam removal engineers and practitioners. Surprisingly, I am only one of two with that kind of experience. It turns out that the diversity of our team’s skills is what allows us to do such a good job reviewing these proposals. We have someone who can look at the budget, another person to look at the policies and legal aspects, someone to determine engineering logistics, another to comment on the dynamic nature of rivers, and someone to weigh in on the ecological impacts. Our team has built a safe and comfortable environment where everyone’s opinions are heard, and we can engage in healthy debates to determine where millions of euros in grant money should be spent.”   

Members of Open Rivers Programme at a previous in-person site visit in Scotland.

Laura is one of two Americans at Open Rivers Programme. Gwen MacDonald, former director of ecological restoration at Save the Sound, is the second. She joined their team in 2021 as grants manager and has since been involved in coordinating the many moving parts involved in providing funding and helping to guide the projects at Open Rivers.

About half of Laura’s time in Europe was spent traversing Slovenia, but once she was done there, she made her way to Florence, Italy to share her work at Save the Sound and at Open Rivers with high schoolers at the International School of Florence. 

“I went on this entire trip with my best friend from high school whose brother, Jason, works as a teacher at the International School Florence,” says Wildman. “While we were staying with Jason, I had the opportunity to speak at the school in one of their environmental issues classes. I spoke about all of the projects that our ecological restoration team at Save the Sound works on, living shorelines, dam removals, coastal restoration, and green infrastructure. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the students in that class had either covered aspects of these projects in previous lessons or were about to learn about them in upcoming lessons.” 

From site visits in Kobarid to classroom visits in Florence, no matter where Laura went, she brought her passion for river restoration. That passion, alive in both of her roles at Save the Sound and Open Rivers continues to expand from the rivers of Long Island Sound to those in Slovenia, the Netherlands, Austria, and beyond. We are excited to see where she goes next in her global dam removal quest.

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