Monday was a good day for fish. After nearly 200 years of bumping their heads against a dam wall, the Penobscot River’s salmon, shad, alewives, sturgeon and blueback herring are a big step closer to being able to return to their native waters to feed, spawn and boost the larger ecosystem.
The beginning of the removal of the Great Works dam between Old Town and Bradley also marked an important moment in the long-term collaboration among some unlikely groups of people: those overseeing hydropower production, the Penobscot Indian Nation, environmentalists and the state and federal government.
The event on Monday to start to take out 1,000 feet of concrete, timber and cribwork from the Penobscot River was 13 years in the making. In addition to dismantling the Great Works dam, the nonprofit Penobscot River Restoration Trust in the coming years plans to remove a dam in Veazie and install fish bypasses at dams in Howland and Milford.
The goals are worthy ones: allow fish to migrate farther into northern and central Maine waterways, improve the river’s water quality, increase recreational use and revive cultural traditions, all while maintaining hydropower production. Hydroelectricity generation will increase at other dams to offset the removal.
The project has been described as the best chance to restore a major run of wild Atlantic salmon in the United States. Once complete, it will open up almost 1,000 miles of the Penobscot River watershed to the ocean.
It’s possible because of a deal that came to fruition several years ago. In 2009, PPL Corp. sold dams in Milford, Orono, Stillwater, Ellsworth, Medway and West Enfield to Black Bear Hydro for $81 million. One year later the trust bought from PPL the Veazie, Great Works and Howland dams for $24 million.
The entire project to remove and decommission the dams will cost a rough estimate of $50 million and will rely on public and private funds. Bangor Daily News Publisher Richard J. Warren is co-chairman of the trust’s capital campaign and U.S. chairman of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, one of the partner organizations of the trust.
In addition to the Penobscot Indian Nation, other members are American Rivers, Maine Audubon, Natural Resources Council of Maine, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy.
The endeavor has been praised by many people, but recently Gov. Paul LePage took a stance against it, saying he thought it irresponsible for the country to take out hydro dams. Instead, he said, “I think we need to put more in.”
This project works, though, because Black Bear Hydro Partners is able to maintain, and might even increase, its electricity production at other dams. Improving the fish habitat also will likely have an impact on marine life, contributing to the state’s coastal economy.
The Great Works dam removal has been a topic of conversation in the area, prompting letters to the editor and opinion pieces from residents. One person submitted poetry for the occasion.
From his poem, Salmon Returning to the Penobscot People, Paul Averill Liebow, a physician and Penobscot River ambassador, wrote: “Praise Be to The Great Spirit, whose robe warms them / And keeps them through deep winters dark calm- / Fluffs them out on a Blue Norther’s cloud-decked hem- / Blessing their journey through The Sea’s salty balm.”
It’s encouraging to see Maine’s largest river being revived with input from many different groups. Mainers shouldn’t forget the patience, hard work and long-term planning that made it possible. The Great Works dam appears to be living up to its name.