Usually when a project is described as “unprecedented” and “visionary” it isn’t either. In the case of the multifaceted plan announced yesterday to remove two dams and improve five others along the Penobscot River to open hundreds of miles of habitat for sea-run fish, the glowing adjectives are appropriate. First, the scope of the project is impressive. To assist the migration of endangered wild Atlantic salmon and other fish, the Veazie and Great Works (located in Old Town) dams will be removed. A fish by-pass will be investigated for the Howland dam, so that structure – a centerpiece of the town – will remain in place although it will cease making power. Fish passage improvements will be made at dams in Orono, Stillwater, Milford and Medway. These efforts will open up 500 miles of habitat on the Penobscot and its tributaries for native fish, including restoring unimpeded access to all of the historic range for striped bass, Atlantic and shortnosed sturgeon and tomcod.
Also of note is the project’s unlikely source – the dams’s new owner, PPL Corp., which was seeking ways to avoid the battles the prior owner had with conservation groups and the Penobscot Nation over relicensing and fish passages. PPL began meeting with conservation groups and state officials soon after buying nine dams on the Penobscot that generated 45 megawatts of power in 1999.
Perhaps even more impressive than the goal is the cast of characters working to turn the Penobscot into a more free-flowing river. PPL is joined by the Penobscot Nation, the state of Maine, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service. Conservation groups working on the project are the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine Audubon, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Trout Unlimited and American Rivers. This coalition is unexpected because the Penobscot Nation fought the state’s efforts to be granted authority to issue wastewater discharge permits on the Penobscot and other rivers under the Clean Water Act. The state fought the federal government on its decision to list wild Atlantic salmon as an endangered species three years ago. And President Bush has said he is opposed to breaching hydroelectric dams.
Although the supporters are many, they have an enormous task ahead of them. They must raise $40 million to buy the three dams to be removed or bypassed, to install fish passages and to upgrade other dams that will be put into use to make up for the 10 percent of power generation that will be lost by taking the three others off-line. Perhaps as a big a hurdle could be community opposition from those towns that will lose tax revenue when the dams are shut down. Gov. John Baldacci has pledged $3 million to $5 million and assistance from the Department of Economic and Community Development to compensate for lost revenue.
One potential source of economic development could be fishing. Soon after Edwards Dam was removed from the Kennebec River in Augusta in 1999, striped bass were being caught upriver. Sturgeon have been found in Waterville and guides are kept busy leading angling trips on the once-impounded portion of the river.
Rather than fight in court over the status of Atlantic salmon, this project shows that working together to develop innovative solutions is better for the fish. It also shows that instead of dueling over who should regulate pollution discharges – an issue that remains unresolved despite the intervention of the U.S. Department of Justice – the state and Penobscot Nation should come up with a compromise.
Though a long way from complete, this is a visionary and unprecedented project that should be emulated elsewhere in Maine and beyond.