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Vol. 4, No. 3


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More dams razed, many more to go  (cont'd)


The razing of the Edwards Dam handed a landmark victory to river conservationists by becoming the first time a U.S. federal agency refused to relicense a hydroelectric dam over the objection of the dam owner. The agency, the Federal Energy and Regulatory Commission, ruled that the hindrance the dam posed to migratory fish that swim upstream to spawn outweighed the benefit it provided in generating electricity. Taking the ruling a step further, the agency ordered the aging structure demolished.

Brooke, the former director of the Maine Field Office of American Rivers, who now works in the Land for Maine's Future Program of the Maine State Planning Office, lives in Augusta and has explored the Kennebec for decades. He says-and experts agree-that the opening of the river has created cleaner water and a setting where migratory fish and other wildlife can thrive as they did before the dam was built in 1837. Just as significant, he adds, the downing of the dam has given the river back to the community.

"The river's image has changed the image of Augusta and Waterville," he says. "More people are enjoying this extraordinary resource."

As a result of a growing awareness in recent years over the impact of dams on fish populations and water quality, communities around the Gulf of Maine are discussing whether the preponderance of old dams that barricade the watershed and have long since served their purpose should go. Citing the high costs of maintaining the dams and the potential danger they pose to residents downstream, those in favor of removing the barriers say the time has come to undo the damage of the past. 

Of major concern are the nine species of fish that literally bump into the dams as they swim upstream into fresh water to spawn every year. Dams raise the water temperature, making it hard on coldwater species like salmon and trout. By slowing the flow, they cause silt to accumulate on river bottoms and bury fish spawning habitat. The silt traps heavy metals and other pollutants. Faster running, unimpeded rivers mean cleaner water, more fish and fish species, and more vegetation.

Andy Goode, the director of U.S. programs for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, says the dams are in part to blame for the dismal decline of the Atlantic salmon. Rivers with multiple dams, in particular, hinder the migration of fish that often cannot find fish passages. This delays the fish and makes it difficult for them to cope with rising water temperatures as the season progresses. Another blow, Goode says, are cormorants and other predators that capture the fish as they struggle to get past the dam.

Because of the cumulative effects of these roadblocks, he says, "We've lost 50 percent of the habitat for these fish. If we can restore habitat [by removing dams] we might possibly be able save the salmon."

For several years now, Maine has stood in the forefront of taking down dams primarily to restore fish passage. In addition to the Edwards Dam, federal and state agencies working with conservationists, dam owners and local communities, have removed two dams on the Souadabscook Stream, the Brownville Dam on the Pleasant River, the East Machias Dam on the East Machias River, and Archer's Mill Dam on Stetson Stream. State and federal officials are planning to remove the Smelt Hill Dam on the Presumpscot River next year. While it is one of nine dams on the 25-mile (40.2-kilometer) long river, its removal would leave the river's last eight miles (12.8 kilometers) dam-free and serve as a recreational boon for the City of Portland. 

Dana Murch, the hydropower and dam supervisor for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), says the department compiled a registry of dams for the state in 1993 and found 750 with a height of two feet (0.6 meters) and greater. He added that the report did not take into account the hundreds of old log driving dams built in the last 150 or more years to generate power for the sawmills. Opening the gates or dynamiting the dams released a rush of water to propel logs downstream. On the western branch of the Penobscot River and its tributaries alone, 137 of the dams were constructed from the mid-1800s to the early 1920s. Many have disintegrated naturally, Murch says, yet a vast number continue to clog the waterways. 

To be sure, he says, "There was hardly a town in Maine that wasn't built up around a saw mill."