AUGUSTA, Maine — A backhoe took a bite out of the Edwards Dam 10 years ago, releasing the waters of the Kennebec River that had been held back for more than a century and a half. Months after that first torrent gushed through from upstream, the entire dam was gone and the river ran free.
Conservationists and sporting enthusiasts hailed the July 1, 1999, removal of the longtime landmark as a major step toward returning one of Maine’s largest rivers to its natural state. Moreover, they held the project up as an example that could be followed in other states, especially those with sea-run fish species like the Kennebec.
And that’s exactly what happened, according to conservationists.
“Edwards was not the first dam removal,” said Stephanie Lindloff, senior director of American Rivers’s river restoration program. “But it was the first one that prompted a more focused discussion about removal of dams, especially those with safety issues and that had outlived their usefulness.”
What also gave impetus to the idea of dam removals was the fact that the 24-foot-high, 917-foot-wide Edwards Dam was the first big one to go, against its owners’s wishes, conservationists said, and up to that time, one of the largest to be taken out.
Numbers provided by American Rivers suggest the Maine dam’s removal set the stage for more than 430 others across the country – more than three times the 130 taken down between 1990 and 1998.
Many of the dams, like Edwards, have come up for federal relicensing, contributing to the removal trend. Conservationists and sporting groups encourage the removals, point to growing evidence of environmental harm caused by dams and question the safety of the impoundments, especially older ones.
“Dams in the United States are just aging from their go-go days in the 40s, 50s and 60s,” said Andrew Goode, vice president of U.S. programs for the Atlantic Salmon Federation.
Economics have also played a role, said Goode. Owners and regulators have been more likely to question whether dams with relatively little power output are worth keeping.
The Edwards Dam, originally built in 1837, supported a textile mill that closed in the 1980s. Edwards Manufacturing Co. wanted to keep the dam in operation because it still produced electricity. But the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recommended removing the dam in 1997, saying its environmental damage greatly outweighed its hydropower benefits.
As regulators require owners of older dams to install fish passages as a condition for relicensing, some opt to abandon the structures due to the expense, Goode said.
Removals often generate at least some controversy, with opponents questioning the loss of green power, places for recreational boating and a loss of irrigation sources. In some cases, anglers have complained that removal would disrupt existing fisheries.
Last year, more than 60 dams in 14 states were removed, according to American Rivers’s count. Those dams are in California, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
A concrete and stone dam is being demolished at Fort Covington, N.Y., on the Salmon River along the Canadian border, with expectations of reduced upstream flooding and restoration of fish habitat for a number of species. It was built in 1913 by the Fort Covington Heat, Light and Power Co., to provide hydroelectricity for local mills.
Anglers said they missed the runs of muskie, pike, walleye and smallmouth bass that used to be a hallmark of the Salmon River. Removing the dam would give bass and walleye access to at least another 10 miles of river for spawning and provide more spawning habitat for northern pike, muskellunge and the Eastern sand darter, a state-listed threatened species. It also could lead to the reintroduction of lake sturgeon and allow for easier passage of American eels to and from the St. Lawrence River.
In Oregon, Gov. Ted Kulongoski was expected to sign a bill to raise $180 million for removing four hydroelectric dams rising from 60 to 162 feet on the Klamath River, freeing up long-blocked salmon runs. Work could begin around 2020 if it can be done safely.
“That is going to be an internationally significant river restoration project,” said Lindloff. “It will be the largest dam removal project in the history of the world as far was we know.”
Demolition is now under way on the 39-foot-high Savage Rapids Dam on Oregon’s Rogue River, a dam that was used primarily for irrigation and did not produce power. The Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Washington is scheduled for demolition in 2012.
This spring, $54.7 million in federal stimulus money was allocated for removal of the Elwha Dam and restoration of Elwha River basin at Olympic National Park in Washington. Pennsylvania has led the nation in the number of dam removals, mostly smaller ones, says American Rivers.
In Maine, conservationists want to remove two dams and install a bypass channel at a third along the Penobscot River to reopen hundreds of miles of Maine river habitat to Atlantic salmon and other sea-run fish.
This spring saw a record or near-record alewife run on the Sebasticook River because of the removal of the Edwards Dam, which had prevented fish from reaching the lower part of the river, as well as the 2008 removal of the Fort Halifax Dam farther upstream.
Eleven species of sea-run fish have been able to return to more than 17 miles of the Kennebec River opened by the Edwards Dam, according to environmentalists.