Five years after the demolition of Edwards Dam, the Kennebec has rebounded.
Five years ago the Edwards Dam disappeared from the Kennebec River in Augusta. Today, no one misses it.
Jim Thibodeau doesn’t miss it. The removal of Edwards Dam drained seventeen miles of dead-water impoundment below Waterville and turned it into a free-flowing river again for the first time in more than 150 years. Thibodeau, a Waterville resident and Registered Maine Guide, used to spend his summers guiding sports on the rivers of Montana. These days, as a guide working through the Fly Fishing Only tackle shop in Fairfield, he has more than enough business with fishermen eager to try their luck chasing the striped bass, shad, and brown trout that have returned to the newly revitalized stretch of river.
Paula Lunt, of Tenants Harbor, doesn’t miss it. This June she organized the first Maine Flat-water Canoe and Kayak Championships, attracting hundreds of amateur and professional paddlers to a seven-mile stretch of the Kennebec between Sidney and Augusta. “It’s such a beautiful stretch of river,” she explains, “and it was great to show how something so good came out of the removal of the dam. We launched in Sidney, and for the first five miles it’s absolutely wild, no houses, no camps, just deer running along the banks and fish jumping and bald eagles overhead. I’d like to see a race there become an annual event.”
Michelle Krigbaum doesn’t miss it. The owner of Augusta-based Mid-Maine Realty just sold a sixty-acre parcel on the river in Vassalboro to a New Hampshire couple who were blown away by the chance to own 1,000 feet of frontage on the Kennebec. Krigbaum kayaks the river herself as often as possible, and she’s paddled the entire Waterville-to-Augusta route six times. “It’s my R&R,” she explains. “After five minutes on the river I am so relaxed.”
In fact, the river is doing so well without the Edwards Dam, some people have trouble remembering where the dam sat. Steve Brooke isn’t one of them. As one of the leaders of the Kennebec Coalition, the group he helped form to advocate reopening the river, the Hallowell resident spent almost ten years fighting for the dam’s destruction.
“Right there,” he says, pointing at an otherwise undistinguished gravel bar between Augusta’s Mill Park and the American Tissue mill on the east shore. “There’s really nothing to mark it except this park and peoples’s memories.”
Mill Park stretches for half a mile along the west bank of the Kennebec River in Augusta. It’s a flat, closely cropped greensward backed into the foot of Sand Hill, Augusta’s old tenement district. Here once stood the Edwards Mill, a ramshackle wooden, nineteenth-century, textile factory that burned to the ground one frigid night in 1989, the flames surging from one tall loom gallery to the next and blowing out banks of windows in explosive shards with a heat so intense observers on the far side of the Kennebec River shielded their faces.
Mill Park is also the final resting place of the Edwards Dam. That level lawn overlays millions of tons of man-sized stones that once filled the cribwork dam across the Kennebec. “Man-sized” doesn’t mean they are human scaled; it means they are of a size a man can pick up and carry, because that’s how the dam was built back in 1837 – one man, one rock; carry the rock to the tip of the dam stretching into the river, drop it in place, go back for another one. The result was a massive structure twenty feet high and 917 feet long.
Maine Guide Thibodeau remembers the Kennebec River below Waterville in the days of the dam. “The river was a lake, stagnant,” he recalls. “Once in a great while you’d see someone out there in a bass boat. That’s all you caught then, a few bass. Almost no water birds. It was pretty much a dead river.”
These days the river teems with life in the water and in the air. Realtor Krigbaum remembers the first time a six-foot Atlantic sturgeon jumped next to her kayak. “It was like a gunshot,” she says. “My mother was in the kayak next to me, and her eyes almost bugged out of her head. Those fish are huge and prehistoric.”
Ospreys, kingfishers, cormorants, and bald eagles now patrol the river. Each year, according to state biologists, millions of alewives sweep upstream as far as the dams in Waterville and Winslow. “Alewives are vital,” Thibodeau explains. “They’re a forage fish for all the larger fish plus the birds.”
State researchers have also found that aquatic insect populations in the restored river – indicators of improved water quality and habitat – are growing dramatically. Water traps that had once caught fewer than 100 small insects, snails, and invertebrates in the impoundment above the dam are now catching 1,000 to 2,000 at a time, and scientists are finding twice and three times the number of species.
And then there’s the ultimate gauge of a river’s health in Maine – Atlantic salmon. “Around 1980 I got active in Trout Unlimited and started coming down and fishing the river right here in Augusta,” Steve Brooke explains. “Bond Brook comes into the river just down from where the park is now. It’s a cold-water stream, lots of dissolved oxygen. There was an eddy there on the river that was an Atlantic salmon hole. Only a small group of anglers knew about it.”
Now Atlantic salmon and their redds – the gravel depressions where they spawn – have been spotted as far north as Waterville. “I’ve seen them myself,” says Clinton “Bill” Townsend, Skowhegan lawyer, consummate fisherman, and éminence grise of the Maine environmental movement. “I don’t know if they’re remnant Kennebec salmon or salmon from elsewhere poking their noses up a new river, but they’re there. It’s a whole new river these days. It’s alive.”
“Tearing out Edwards Dam,” Jim Thibodeau concludes, “was the best thing that ever happened to the Kennebec.”
in the opinion of many, it was also the best thing that could ever happen for all of Maine’s rivers. In the five years since the dam’s removal, other dams have come down in Newport, Union, and East Machias. The Fort Halifax Dam, at the mouth of the Sebasticook River in Winslow, is scheduled for demolition this year. In June a coalition of environmental organizations, the Penobscot Nation, dam owners, and state agencies signed an agreement to remove two major dams on the Penobscot River in Howland and Veazie north of Bangor and build fish passages at others that will open up more than 500 miles of the Penobscot watershed to Atlantic salmon, alewives, and other sea-run fish.
The deliberate destruction of the Edwards Dam also set a national precedent, proving that dams of marginal value could be removed just to create something alive and healthy and clean. In the course of the twentieth century, some 500 dams were torn down in the United States, but mostly for safety or economic reasons. In the five years since Edwards became the foundation for a park, more than 140 dams have been removed, not because they had to be, but because they should be.
“Edwards took the dam-removal issue to the national level because of its size and impact,” says Elizabeth Maclin at American Rivers, a conservation group in Washington, D.C. “Because of Edwards, local groups and state agencies and federal officials began looking at the idea much more seriously.”
Maclin reports that in the last five years dams have come down all over the country, mostly smaller structures that had outlived their usefulness. “The Army Corps of Engineers has about 75,000 large dams in its census,” she notes. “There could actually be as many as 2 million dams in the United States.”
Edwards Dam was important because it was an active hydropower installation before being torn down. “Edwards was the first time the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission [FERC, which licenses hydropower dams] said the electricity a dam produces isn’t as important as repairing the environmental damage it causes,” Maclin explains.
Originally built to provide mechanical power to shoreside mills, in 1913 Edwards Dam saw the first of five hydroelectric turbines installed on the west side to power the looms and lights of Edwards Mill. By the early 1980s, with the Maine textile industry evaporating in the heat of bankruptcies and overseas competition, the Edwards Mill owners discovered they could earn more money making electricity than they could making cloth. The mill closed.
But even at the peak of the spring flood, with all five turbines spinning at capacity, the dam produced a mere 3.5 megawatts of electricity, less than a thousandth of Maine’s needs. After the mill burned in 1989, the turbine house was rebuilt and in 1991 the dam’s owners applied for a renewed generating license from FERC.
At about the same time, a small group of river enthusiasts – Steve Brooke, former Maine attorney general and conservationist Jon Lund (who won the Down East Environmental Award in 1998 in part for his efforts to remove the dam), Maine Sportsman editor Harry Vanderweide, Bill Townsend, and a handful of others – formed the Kennebec River Anglers Coalition, not coincidentally known as KRAC, to advocate the removal of Edwards Dam.
At the time, Townsend and Lund served on the board of directors of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, one of the state’s premier environmental organizations. They talked the council into joining the Edwards Dam fight. Brooke brought the Kennebec chapter of Trout Unlimited to the table. American Rivers and the Atlantic Salmon Federation signed on, and the Kennebec Coalition was created.
It wasn’t an easy fight, even after FERC made its historic 1997 decision to order the dam removed. At one point the dam’s owners even brought in the city of Augusta as a financial partner to stymie the project. Brooke credits the key intervention of then-Governor Angus King and the state Department of Marine Resources in the late 1990s with playing a pivotal role in resolving the final issues. On January 1, 1999, the floodgates were opened and the turbines stopped spinning. Six months later, on July 1, the dam was breached.
Critics had warned that opening the dam and lowering the river ten feet and more would cause erosion, stir up old pollutants, and leave the river a shallow trickle running through odiferous mudflats. All of the gloomy predictions failed to materialize. Grasses, wildflowers, and other vegetation greened the bare riverbanks within weeks. Clean-up crews hauled off scattered debris and the few piles of old pulp logs that the lower water levels revealed.
“The Kennebec rebounded so quickly it was almost breathtaking,” recalls Laura Rose Day, who works on the continuing Kennebec renewal project for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “It demonstrated that river restoration really works. If you give a river a chance, you can recapture so much of its original ecosystem and beauty. Six years ago I couldn’t take my son fishing for shad near our home in Sidney. Now I do.”
despite the overwhelming success of the Edwards Dam project, not everyone is eager to follow its example. As part of the agreement that brought down Edwards Dam, the Fort Halifax Dam at the mouth of the Sebasticook River is supposed to be breached this summer. Shorefront residents on the impoundment above the dam, led by local state Representative Kenneth Fletcher, have delayed the move even though the dam owner, the state of Maine, and FERC all agree the dam must go.
The opposition mystifies Nick Bennett, the Natural Resources Council of Maine staffer overseeing the project. “In the summer the water quality in the impoundment is abysmal,” he points out. “Sewage from treatment plants upstream settles there and rots behind the dam.”
Additionally, two other dams upriver from Waterville are supposed to have fish lifts installed by now to open up hundreds of additional miles of rivers and streams in the Kennebec watershed. “Those dam owners don’t even have design drawings ready yet,” Bennett notes. “They’re years overdue.”
But the mere fact that those dams are an issue shows a basic shift in thinking about the Kennebec. “The emphasis of the Kennebec River has become restoration,” explains Naomi Schalit, executive director of the Augusta-based Maine Rivers conservation organization. “Thirty years after the Clean Water Act, we tend to pat ourselves on the back because the rivers are running clean. The Kennebec represents the next step – restoration of its historic populations of fish. We’ve cleaned our rivers, but we haven’t brought them back to life yet.”
Steve Brooke visits Mill Park often to look at a river that has been brought back to life. These days he works for the Land for Maine’s Future program, evaluating properties for potential acquisition and conservation. It’s a tenuous position – the legislature last spring refused to act on Governor John Baldacci’s request for a new $100-million bond issue to keep the program operating.
“I come here sometimes just to think things through, to see the potential,” Brooke says. “What happened here was important in its own right, but what it showed us in the potential for the future is even more important.”