by Susan Sharon
Maine Public Radio news story
Sometime in the next couple of weeks, a small dam on a tributary of the Androscoggin River on the Topsham-Lisbon Falls line will be torn down and 43 miles of the scenic Little River set free. It’s not a major dam, but it’s the first time any dam in the Androscoggin watershed has been removed for ecological reasons. And environmentalists see it as a significant step toward restoring sea-run fish, such as endangered Atlantic salmon, to their native spawning grounds.
Back in the 1800s, before the construction of dozens of small dams blocked their passage upstream, and before pollution from factories and farms took their toll, Atlantic salmon, shad and other sea-run fish frolicked in the cool, shaded waters of the Little River, one of several tributaries of the lower Androscoggin.
And in their heyday, an estimated 50,000 Atlantic Salmon returned from the ocean to this region to lay their eggs. This year, there were 24.
John Burrows of the Atlantic Salmon Federation says they face numerous hurdles en route to the same rivers populated by their ancestors. “If you’re an Atlantic Salmon, you’re coming up the Kennebec River down at Popham Beach and swimming up through Merrymeeting Bay, and then a salmon has a choice: They can continue up the Kennebec or they can make a left hand turn and swim up the Androscoggin.”
After a couple of miles, the salmon crosses the Brunswick-Topsham town line and then encounters the very first dam on the river at Fort Andross. The dam has fish passage there, but just a few more miles up the Androscoggin is the Pejepscot Dam, also with fish passage.
“Once they go past that dam they can hang a right to go past the Little River here or they can continue up the Androscoggin to Lewiston,” Burrows says. “There’s one more dam, the Worumbo Dam, which is another couple of miles upriver, and after that they have a straight shot to downtown Lewiston, where there’s a fourth dam where they don’t have fish passage.”
Burrows says endangered salmon prefer to spawn in smaller tributaries like the Little River. So if they’re fortunate enough to bang a right off the Androscoggin, and if the water flow in the Little River is just right, salmon and other fish can actually manage to heave themselves over the low-slung, 70-foot wide dam and make into the upper reaches of the Little River, which stretches 43 miles through mostly woods and farmland. Once the Little River Dam is removed, the journey will be easier.
“This is the first time that the public will really see that, yes, our river too can be restored and our fish can be restored,” says Neil Ward, the program director for the Androscoggin River Alliance, which has partnered with the Atlantic Salmon Federation on the dam removal project.
“And on a personal level this is a red banner day for my family. My great-grandfather grew up about a mile-and-a-half up the main stem of the Androscoggin from here and as a little boy he caught wild Atlantic salmon in this river,” Ward says. “And this is a kind of a signal for our family that maybe someday my children or my grandchildren will be able to fish for salmon in this river again and that’ll be the first time in four or five generations of just my family.”
As dam removal projects go, Ward say this one is tiny. He says it will cost the partners about $80,000 to do the actual demolition. Most of the funding will come from the federal government. And the dam’s owner, Miller Hydro, is not requesting any kind of payment since the dam is no longer in operation.
A call to Miller Hydro was not returned by airtime. But Ward says the groups hope to work with the company in the future. That’s because Miller Hydro also owns the first dam on the Sabattus River, another tributary of the Androscoggin.