by Beth Daley, Globe staff
Ten years ago today, a demolition crew in Augusta, Maine punched a hole through a 160-year-old dam on the Kennebec River and made history.
It was the first time that the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled that the ecological value of a free-flowing river was greater than the economic value of a dam – and marked the end of a bitter decade-long fight over the dam’s fate.
Now, the Kennebec, one of Maine’s great rivers, has come back to life. Without the dam’s barrier, 2 million alewives returned to the river this year, making it one of the largest river herring runs in the United States. Anglers are increasing fishing for bass and other fish. Atlantic sturgeon – the Kennebec’s largest fish that can grow up to 10 feet in length – are regularly seen leaping out of the river from Augusta to Waterville during their mid-summer spawning migration. Canoe and kayakers regularly paddle along the scenic waterway.
The dam removal was touted at the time as a symbol of a new era, one where dams would face increasing scrutiny over their environmental damage. Environmentalists predicted dozens – perhaps more – dams would be ordered removed when their licenses expired.
But that didn’t happen, as a recent story in Maine’s Morning Sentinel points out. According to the story, more than 430 dams have been removed since the Edwards. But none were ordered removed over the objections of dam owners for environmental reasons.
Still, it’s hard to argue that the Kennebec marked a pivotal point in restoring rivers, one that has scientists, advocacy groups and the government looking to remove dams to bring back the fish – or at the least more sophisticated fish ladders to help nature get passed man made barriers.
The Kennebec’s magical transformation shows just how vital it can be.