by Susan Sharon
MPBN news story
In a scene repeated from the Penobscot River last year, when the Great Works Dam was demolished, the historic removal of another large dam began, in sections, today. This time it was the 830-foot-long Veazie Dam at head of tide in Eddington: first, a small trickle of water as a hydraulic hammer attached to an escalator ripped into the structure; then a growing waterfall emerged as hundreds of spectators observed from across the river. As Susan Sharon reports, there are big hopes for the river restoration project, one of the largest and most significant in the country.
It will take demolition crews until the fall to completely remove the century-old Veazie Dam. And once it is finally gone and fish passage improvements are made to the Howland Dam further upstream, nearly a dozen species of sea-run fish – endangered Atlantic salmon, endangered Atlantic sturgeon, river herring, shad, striped bass and smelt – will have access to their historic habitat in Maine’s largest river, and one of the largest rivers in the Northeast.
“We’re talking in a sense about breaching a dam, and as I think about it, I think instead that we’re talking about repairing a breach,” said John Bullard of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Bullard says that’s because of all the hopes for restored connections along the Penobscot, once 1,000 miles of habitat is opened up. That includes restoring the identity of the Penobscot Indians, who settled the banks of the river that is their namesake.
Hundreds of people joined environmental groups, anglers and representatives of the Penobscot Indian Nation for a celebration that kicked off with native drumming and a traditional native smudging ceremony (right). Chief Kirk Francis says the restoration project is about more than just fish: He says it’s about extraordinary friendships, and the health and vitality of the river, which he calls the Penobscots’s soul.
“And it’s simply the most important thing in the Penobscot Nation’s life,” Chief Francis told the crowd. “And I think it’s extremely hard to find the words to express our joy we feel here today.”
The project, known as the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, is unusual for its scale and complexity. For more than a decade, conservation groups, hydropower companies and state and federal agencies worked with the Penobscot Indian Nation to come up with an unprecedented plan to retain hydropower production, even as dams were being decommissioned and removed, and the river habitat brought back to life.
And for Tom Rumpf of the Nature Conservancy, the collaboration between parties that might otherwise be at odds is one of the most gratifying aspects of the work.
“Unfortunately, even in Maine we’re starting to see a lot of this polarization, and the real strength of this project was that all the parties that were stakeholders came together,” Rumpf says. “It’s great to have a story like this about people collaborating to solve significant issues.”
According to the group American Rivers, which keeps a database on dam removal, 20 dams in Maine have come down over the past dozen years. But four of them have been on major rivers, some of the largest in the Northeast. And that has put the state’s river restoration efforts in the spotlight, says Lisa Pohlmann of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
“Starting with the Edwards Dam back in the late 90s, which was a ten-year-long project; the Fort Halifax Dam came out in 200,8 and just to focus on the Kennebec for a minute, we’ve now had the largest alewife run east of the Mississippi, since that all happened,” Pohlmann says. “Last year was the Great Works Dam that came out here on the Penobscot. And then, of course, we opened the St. Croix this year too – I can’t help but mention that – so it’s a very, very exciting time for Maine’s rivers.”
This year, fewer than 400 Atlantic salmon made it over the Veazie Dam. That’s the lowest number since the count was started. Royce Day of Bangor is a member of the Eddington Salmon Club who once caught the first Penobscot River salmon of the season and presented it to the President at the White House, a time-honored tradition in these parts.
But that was back in 1991 before the salmon were listed as endangered. “That’s when there were some fish!” Day says. “Also the river used to be right full of boats. You could almost walk across the river sometimes.”
Day says he doesn’t expect to able to fish for salmon again in his lifetime. He’s 79 years old. But he says he’ll be watching, and hoping that salmon and other fish return.