by David Ferris
Today, steel rams will start to break apart an old hydroelectric dam on Maine’s longest river, ushering in a restoration project that will keep the electricity flowing while rehabilitating some of the state’s most damaged and valuable fisheries, like herring and Atlantic salmon.
The dam destruction on the Penobscot River caps a 13-year, $25 million campaign involving six conservation groups, the local Native American tribe, federal and state governments and two hydropower companies to decommission three dams that have choked the lower river for decades, while upgrading power output on six other dams.
“Removing the lower two dams and bypassing a third opens up nearly 1,000 miles of habitat for endangered Atlantic salmon, sturgeon, river herring and eight other species of sea-run fish in Maine. As fish passage is improved at four remaining dams and energy increased at others, these ecological benefits will be realized while maintaining or even increasing energy production,” according to the website of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, which was formed in order to rehabilitate the river.
A ceremony is being held today to celebrate the removal of the Great Works dam, which has blocked the fish commute on the Penobcot since the 1830s. The Penobscot River, the second-longest in New England, begins below Mount Katahdin in the North Woods and ends its journey 109 miles later in Penobscot Bay.
Great Works, the dam second-closest to the coast, is expected to be removed by November. Destruction of the most oceanward dam, called the Veazie, will start in 2013 and be complete by 2014, said Laura Rose Day, executive director of the Penobscot Trust.
Removing the two dams will restore the entire run of some fish, like Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon and striped bass. Meanwhile, Atlantic salmon will gain access to their historic hatching grounds with the help of a fish elevator to be installed on a dam upriver.
“Restoring access to this prime habitat represents our single best opportunity to recover Atlantic salmon, the most endangered migratory fish in the northeastern United States,” according to a memo by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, which has invested almost $20 million to rebuild fisheries on the Penobscot.
One of the most important creatures to find relief will be river herring, a class of small baitfish that historically ran in the tens of millions on the Penobscot but now number just a few thousand. They are tasty meals for cod and pollock, some of the most valuable fish in Maine that vanished when the herring did. Herring are also prime baitfish for the lobster fishery, which in Maine earns $331 million a year.
A similar dam removal project was performed in the late 1990s on the Kennebec, a smaller river in Maine. It caused a rally in the population of alewife, a key baitfish whose census shrunk to the low thousands before the dam removals and have since returned 2.8 million strong per year, according to the Penobscot Trust.
The trust originally bought the two dams from PPL Corporation, which subsequently sold its remaining assets on the Penobscot to Black Bear Hydropower. Now Black Bear Hydropower is retooling six other dams on the Penobcot to make up for the loss of the Great Works and Veazie dams. The company is raising the level of one dam and adding powerhouses in vacant slots at others, all at its own expense. “We probably will at least equal the energy we’re losing,” said Dick Fennelly, a vice president at Black Bear Hydro.
Members of the Penobscot Trust include the Penobscot Indian Nation and the environmental groups American Rivers, Atlantic Salmon Federation, Maine Audubon, Natural Resources Council of Maine, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy.
NOAA estimates that the dam removal project will create 258 jobs.