Removal of Edwards Dam in Maine provides some insight into what might happen after Embrey Dam is removed
Thousands of people gathered around Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in July 1999 and cheered as heavy machinery carved a hole on one side of the structure.
Among the throng were then-Maine Gov. Angus King and then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt.
It was a historic day in many respects. It marked the first time a hydroelectric dam was re-moved by the federal government for environmental reasons. The breach allowed migratory fish to swim above the dam for the first time since 1837.
Since 1999, approximately 100 dams have been torn down, according to Eric Eckl, spokesman for American Rivers, an environmental advocacy group based in Washington.
Next month Embrey Dam, on a bend of the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, will join the list.
“We’re very excited about it. Our hats go off to the Friends of the Rappahannock and the other organizations who have been doing the heavy lifting on this,” Eckl said.
When the dam is down and the celebrating is done, what will it mean for the Rappahannock?
What’s happened on the Kennebec might be instructive, Eckl says.
The most important result is that the natural flow of the river is restored.
In the case of the Kennebec, “Almost immediately, sea-run fish species have easier access,” he said. For example, Atlantic sturgeon, a rare but valuable species, have been spotted above the dam, along with Atlantic salmon nests. “My understanding is that it has exceeded expectations of fish being able to make use of the [newly available] habitat.” Millions of fish, including alewives, striped bass, shad, sturgeon and salmon, have returned to their natural spawning grounds.
And, significantly, “American Rivers, the state of Maine and several other partners agreed just recently to remove several more dams on the Penobscot,” Maine’s largest river, Eckl said.
Expectations are similar for the removal of Embrey Dam, the largest dam to be torn down since Edwards Dam.
“This is about the most important thing that could be done for the Rappahannock River. [The dam] blocks hundreds of miles of potential habitat. And the removal will make that available in one fell swoop while removing a safety hazard in the river and creating new boating and recreational opportunities,” Eckl said.
“The thing about a dam is that if you’re not using it for anything, it becomes a liability.”>/p>
The removal of Embrey Dam is expected to primarily benefit migrating shad, herring and striped bass, which come up the river each spring to spawn.