AUGUSTA — The scientists from the Department of Marine Resources sit in their boat, in the middle of the Kennebec River, waiting. Like fishermen who flock to the banks of the river in Winslow hoping to land a shad or striped bass or maybe even short-nosed sturgeon, they wait. Then, they wait some more.
The scientists, unlike the fishermen, aren’t looking to keep their catch. Instead, they untangle shad from a 100-foot net and inject them with a radio transmitter that will tell how far the fish travel each day during spawning season.
Five years ago, there weren’t enough adult shad in this part of the Kennebec to do this type of research. But the river has responded with vigor in the five years since Edwards Dam came tumbling down.
“We’ve been pretty taken aback,” said Jeff Reardon, New England conservation director for Trout Unlimited. “The fish have come back faster and in bigger numbers than we thought they would.”
Along with the fish, there are more eagles and osprey, canoeists and kayakers, river observers say.
For more than a decade, environmental groups lobbied the city of Augusta, the state, the federal government and the owners of the dam for its removal. The dam, built in 1837, at one time powered seven mills, a grist mill and a machine shop.
By the early 1980s, the mills had closed and the dam owners began selling electricity to a power company.
Steve Brooke, the project coordinator for the environmental groups who fought for the dam’s removal, said it took years to get all the government and business entities to work together. But now, the fish that need to swim upstream to spawn can finally reach their destinations.
“When the dam was in place, it was a barrier to all of the migration,” he said. “All of the fish were crowded in the area immediately below the dam.”
That changed in July 1999, when thousands gathered on the river banks to watch as water ran unabated for the first time in 162 years.
“At the ceremony, they punched a hole in the coffer dam and, as they said, the river ran free,” said Naomi Schalit, executive director of Maine Rivers. “It started as a trickle, then it carved a bigger hole, carved a bigger hole, and it just came roaring through eventually.”
People wearing costumes joined then-Gov. Angus S. King Jr. and then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to watch, alongside citizens and environmentalists from across the county.
“It was a goosebump moment,” said Schalit, who was then working as a reporter.
The removal of Edwards Dam marked the first time the federal government ruled that the environmental benefits of dam removal were more important than the economic benefits of keeping the dam running, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
In the years since, about 140 other dams have been removed nationwide, said Elizabeth Maclin, director of the Dam Removal Campaign for American Rivers, a Washington D.C.-based group that works to protect and restore rivers.
Maclin said the Edwards Dam removal is significant nationally not because it was the first dam removed — some 500 had come out previously — but because it showed that dams should be removed for ecological reasons.
Before that, safety and economic interests played a much larger role, she said.
Maclin and Schalit are careful to say that their groups don’t push for removal of all dams, but that each one needs to be evaluated. Old dams or those that no longer fulfill a useful purpose should be taken down, Maclin said.
Those that do remain should be modified so they pose the least amount of harm to the environment, Schalit said.
“We need dams for hydropower generation,” Schalit said. “I turn on light switches myself. But if we’re going to have dams, they have to have as minimal an environmental consequence as possible.”
Maine Rivers is in the process of putting together teams of volunteers who will study dams across the state to determine how they operate and whether they are effective, she said. There are roughly 750 dams across the state, with nine remaining on the main stem of the Kennebec, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Historically, there were thousands of dams in Maine — 11 in Gardiner alone — said Dana Murch, the DEP’s dams and hydro supervisor.
The next local dam that’s slated for modification is Fort Halifax Dam on the Sebasticook River in Winslow.
Murch said the DEP has issued a draft permit to allow a 90-foot section in the middle of that dam to be removed.
Next month, the DEP is scheduled to take final action on the proposal. Then it’s up to the Army Corps of Engineers and Winslow officials to weigh in, he said.
If the Kennebec River is any indication, the area above the dam on the Sebasticook will rebound once water is again allowed to flow freely, said Nick Bennett, staff scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
“There’s been a tremendous increase in the water quality and biodiversity in the critters who live in the river,” he said.
In the next 10 years, nature lovers can expect to see continued improvement in the water quality of the lower Kennebec basin as fish lifts are added to dams in the river, he said.
Another benefit of removing the Edwards Dam is supposed to be a revitalized downtown Augusta.
The city hoped to capitalize on the dam’s removal, thinking it would draw the kind of economic development needed to revitalize the old mill site and other waterfront property, said Delaine Nye, a local real estate agent and member of the Capital Riverfront Improvement District.
“Personally, I was hoping we would have had the Edwards Mill site developed by now,” she said. “Removal of the dam certainly drew people’s eyes to Augusta and to the riverfront. There’s a lot of interest in the riverfront now that the dam’s gone.”
The dam’s removal is just one of a series of environmental improvements that have been made through the years. Once a logging river, fishermen turned their backs on the Kennebec until the early 1980s, said Jim Thibodeau of Waterville, a guide who waded into the Kennebec off Fort Halifax Park to fish last week.
As a child, he didn’t fish in the Kennebec because of the logs and pollution. But after logging companies stopped using the river in the 1970s, it started to make a comeback, he said.
Last year alone, Thibodeau caught 18 shad, with a 6-pounder the largest he’s reeled in. Although some fishermen complain that it’s harder to catch brown trout now that other species are migrating north, they don’t complain too loudly, he said.
“Now they catch big fish,” he said. “A lot of them don’t say too much.”
While Thibodeau made his way down the river on foot, a group of scientists huddled in their boat nearby as the sun began to set.
Marine Resources biologist Gail Wippelhauser, who specializes in American eel and fisheries habitats, led a group onto the river with the mission of tagging shad. To do this, they set up a net in the Kennebec near the mouth of the Sebasticook River.
Once a shad got caught in the net, they injected a radio transmitter into the fish’s abdominal cavity or sent one down its throat. Wippelhauser set up antennas on nearby high points so she can find out how far the fish swim each day when they are busy spawning.
They’ve managed to snag 15 so far, but had hoped to catch more than 200, Wippelhauser said. They’ll continue another week or so, until the river gets too warm for the shad to spawn.
A similar experiment conducted on the Hudson River showed the shad traveled 25 miles a day.
Since 1987, the Marine Resources department has worked to restore shad to the river, first by importing them from other rivers and then by releasing shad fry into the Kennebec.
Alewives, blueback herring and a few Atlantic salmon are coming back as well, she said.
For all the progress made in five years, Schalit said the river still is only beginning its rebirth.
“We’re on our way with this river,” Schalit said. “But we have to keep our eyes on the prize, which is a river absolutely teeming with life. That will be a restored Kennebec.”>/p>