by Susan Sharon
Maine Public Radio news story
For centuries, dams that harnessed water power fueled factories around the Northeast. But the walled barriers prevented migrating fish from reaching their native spawning grounds. Water quality and entire ecosystems changed. Think about a dam on a river you know. Imagine what would happen if that structure came down. That’s what residents of central Maine found out when the Edwards Dam was ordered removed ten years ago this month.
Compared with other structures, the Edwards Dam in Augusta was by no means massive: about 920-feet long and 24-feet tall. But it wasn’t small either. And the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s order to decommission it marked a milestone. Never before had regulators determined that the potential benefits of removing a hydroelectric dam outweighed the usefulness of the electricity it produced.
So on July 1st, 1999 the 150-year old Edwards Dam was breached and 17 miles of the Kennebec River set free.
“I got one on! All right. I got one on!” Jeff Reardon of the group Trout Unlimited has just landed his first American shad. Until the dam came down, these fish were not seen this far up the Kennebec and not in such high numbers. Reardon says there are hundreds of thousands of them here. And other fish are also in abundance — fish that had all but disappeared during the Edwards Dam era.
“To me, the most remarkable thing, and this isn’t so much as an angler – is the spring run of alewife,” Reardon says. “Seeing a river that has two millon fish, it is just phenomenal. It’s like seeing wildebeest on the plains of Africa or bison on the American great plains. This is one of the great planetary migrations.”
Along with big runs of alewives and shad are blueback herring, striped bass, some Atlantic salmon, along with an impressive, prehistoric-looking fish that occasionally leaps out of the Kennebec.
From his boat, Willy Grenier spots one. “Oh my God! You just missed a sturgeon. It was about a six-foot sturgeon. He just jumped out of the water right over there.”
Not just fish, but birds that eat fish, are returning: eagles, osprey, herons and, on this day, a pair of loons. As a property owner along the Kennebec, George Viles of Sidney never pictured all of this. In fact, he says he and his wife were pretty worried they’d be left high and dry when the dam came out. “We were worried about having a shoreline just full of brambles and brush, a mosquito factory, muck and all that,” he says.
But Viles says he quickly went from being a concerned and skeptical homeowner to an enthusiastic supporter. It didn’t hurt that his mother-in-law bought him a fly-rod and he caught three striped bass on his first paddle after the dam came down.
“I had to say I was wrong,” Viles admits. “But it wasn’t just the catching of the fish, it was the cleanliness of the water over time and the sounds, the freshness, the sounds of the gurgling water, as opposed to the big flat impoundment.”
Water quality was upgraded on the river within a year. But other changes were visible even to the untrained eye. Dave Courtemanch of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection says flies that fish feed on started returning to the Kennebec almost immediately.
“We had, like, a 30-fold increase in the number of organisms that we were catching in sampling devices: caddisflies, stone flies, mayflies. They were there within two months. It was quite remarkable,” he says.
Susan Sharon: “Now that you’ve had this data under your belt, what does this tell you about removing a dam? And about water quality?”
Dave Courtemanch: “I guess it goes to that ‘build it and they will come’ kind of theme that people use. If you return a habitat to pre-existing conditions, there are organisms that are adapted and they will find it rather rapidly.”
There are more than 19,000 dams around the Northeast. So far, more than 20 have been removed and others targeted for demolition. Jeff Reardon of Trout Unlimited says dam removal may not make sense in every case. “You’ve got to look at each one of them on a site-specific basis. It can’t be all or nothing because that doesn’t deal with reality.”
While few can argue about the benefits that dam removal has had on the Kennebec River, there is a big difference between now and ten years ago: climate change. Edwards Dam only produced 3.5 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 1,000 homes.
But given the nation’s desire to reduce the carbon footprint, Fred Ayer of the Low Impact Hydropower Institute says the case to remove Edwards Dam might be different now. “I guess we might view it a little differently today where we’re thinking that all things count. I mean people are putting solar panels on the house, and certainly that’s not going to provide electricity for too many people, but it’s worth doing and I think this would have been the same way.”
Ayer, who worked as a consultant for the owners of Edwards Dam, is now working on a project to restore the Penobscot River. On that river, agreements have been reached for dam removal as well as increased hydro production to balance competing interests — something that is likely to be repeated against a backdrop of climate change.