by Bobby Bascomb
An unusual collaboration has led to a deal that will remove two dams on the largest river in Maine. As Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb reports, the Penobscot River dam removals will not only benefit native fish, but also the hydroelectric utility.
GELLERMAN: Over the past decade, more than 500 dams have been removed in the United States, the majority in the Northeast. Most of the dams were built around the turn of the 20th century to power the Industrial Revolution. But the small factories and mills are long gone, and soon, so will two old dams along the Penobscot River in central Maine.
It’s the largest river in the state. As Living On Earth’s Bobby Bascomb reports, thanks to an unusual coalition, the dam removal project will serve the needs of fish and a power company far into the future.
BANKS: We’ve had a lot of rain this year. It’s been great for the salmon.
BASCOMB: It’s a warm, sunny day as John Banks paddles an Old Town canoe up the wide Penobscot River. Banks, the natural resources director for the Penobscot Nation, heads towards a favorite calm spot on the water. He says practically every tributary and bend in the river bears a Penobscot name.
BANKS: If you go down, downstate to the Belfast area, there’s a river called the Passagassawakeag which comes from a Penobscot word that refers to a place where you could spear sturgeon at night by torchlight.
BASCOMB: When Banks’s ancestors were using torchlight to catch their dinner, the river was thick with millions of alewife, shad, and Atlantic salmon.
BANKS: The salmon were extremely important to my ancestors in terms of protein and survival.
BASCOMB: The salmon have also been important for non-native communities along the river. Salmon club were established near fishing holes. Each spring, the first fisherman to catch a salmon sent that fish to the President of the United States.
Starting in 1830, the first of five dams was built to power the growing number of sawmills that popped up along the Penobscot River. New industry polluted the water and dams diminished the once strong fish runs.
Locals describe a filthy, polluted river in the 1950s and 60s. But by 1972, the Clean Water Act began to regulate discharge into the river. And since the 1980s, environmental groups have focused on blocking new dam construction and removing existing dams.
ROYTE: Fish need to move up and down streams, wherever they live.
BASCOMB: Josh Royte is a conservation planner with the Nature Conservancy. His organization has pushed for dam removal for decades, and salmon have become the poster species for Penobscot River restoration.
ROYTE: The Penobscot happens to be one of the rivers that has the highest potential for Atlantic salmon recovery in the country. And if we’re going to bring back salmon, we need to bring them back to the Penobscot River.
BASCOMB: In 1999, seven environmental groups and the Penobscot tribe sat down with a local hydropower utility to see if they could reach common ground. Laura Rose Day, executive director of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, says it was an unusual gathering of groups with seemingly conflicting interests.
DAY: Power production, tribal cultural resources, recreational paddlers, commercial fishing, we all got together and said, “If we could do this again to better accommodate interests and bring back some balance, what would we do?” And the Penobscot project was the result of that.
BASCOMB: After years of negotiations, the group came up with a deal that will remove two dams and install a state of the art fish passage on a third. To offset power lost when the two dams are removed, the utility has already increased production on a smaller tributary.
A dam on one branch that’s been idle for 10 years is now up and running again, producing 30,000 megawatts of electricity. Ultimately, the utility will be producing the same amount of energy as before the project began.
DAY: We hope that that is one thing that this project provides is an example of how people can work together and not only reach an agreement, but really make it stick. Basically, they’ll be increasing power in less ecologically damaging areas than the current dam. So the main stem of the river will be opened up; it will basically be the fish highway.
BASCOMB: Today, the Penobscot is less fish highway and more like a residential street full of speed bumps and potholes. The first obstacle for fish coming in from the Atlantic Ocean is the Veazie Dam.
BASCOMB: There’s a fishway here, three feet wide. The fish that find it can continue upstream. Those that don’t, bump their noses against a cement wall. The Veazie Dam will come down in the summer of 2013, but until then, it’s ground zero for managing fish on the river.
I met Mitch Simpson at the dam on a cool morning. Simpson is a biologist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources and in charge of managing the fish trap at the Veazie Dam.
SIMPSON: This is the fish trap right here. The fishway is actually underneath – you see it down below there.
BASCOMB: The fish trap is essentially a tall elevator that goes from the bottom of the river to the top of the dam. Simpson and I stand on a metal grate that’s the top of the fish lift. As the floor rises below, us three dark shapes take form.
SIMPSON: Those are Atlantic salmon, yeah. At least three.
BASCOMB: Simpson opens a metal door on the side to reveal three large salmon swimming circles in two feet of water. His assistant climbs inside the trap with a large plastic tube to catch each fish and move it into a holding tank. Simpson leans over the tank to measure the fish and look at its overall condition.
SIMPSON: A deformed dorsal, like this one has, is typically a hatchery fish. The hatchery fish, right now, are pretty much sustaining the population. Only anywhere from three to five percent of the fish that come back to the Penobscot are wild – what we call wild.
BASCOMB: Some of the fish caught here are sent to a hatchery where biologists harvest the eggs and raise baby salmon to release upstream. The rest of the salmon are sent on their way, but first they are injected with a tag that uniquely identifies each fish. Every fishway on the river has an antenna system that identifies that fish as it passes.
SIMPSON: So when that tag goes through, it’s just like a tollbooth. Like the Easy Pass, so basically we’re giving all these fish an Easy Pass.
BASCOMB: The “easy pass” allows scientists to figure out how long it takes the salmon to go from dam to dam, and how many are actually getting through. That’s how they discovered that the next dam up – the Great Works Dam – allows almost no fish to pass through. The Great Works will be the first dam to come out next summer.
SIMPSON: That’ll be good to get rid of that one.
BASCOMB: At 260 miles, the Penobscot is the longest river in Maine. Despite the dams, it’s still home to the largest remaining Atlantic salmon run in the country. Unlike Pacific salmon, Atlantic salmon can return several times over to spawn.
DAY: Salmon get a lot of focus; they’re, you know, sort of the sexy fish.
BASCOMB: But Laura Rose Day says what makes the Penobscot really exceptional is that it still has remnant populations of all 11 species of fish that live in both this river and the sea.
DAY: The reality is that the 100s of millions of river herring that will rebound in the Penobscot River are equally important, because for instance, when a young salmon migrates down, one of their biggest ways to avoid being eaten is to travel down with all of these millions of herring, and if you’re the only fish coming down the river, well, the cormorant is going to have you for lunch.
BASCOMB: The Nature Conservancy’s Josh Royte says that once the dams come down, biologists expect fish populations to explode.
ROYTE: Where right now there maybe 800 or so American shad in the river, we hope that there’s over 1.5 million shad in the future. And for salmon likewise, it will be a huge increase from about the 2,000 that we see right now, to as many as 12,000 or more fish coming up and down the river every year. It’s one of the most exciting projects I know about for river restoration in the world.
BASCOMB: Back on the Penobscot River, John Banks continues to paddle his canoe upstream. He says the river now is as clean as it’s been in his lifetime, and he’s looking forward to the day the dams finally come down.
BANKS: So, I have a lot of hope for the future – for our future generations of tribal members, and their use of a clean, healthy river.
BASCOMB: The Penobscot tribe has not been able to exercise its fishing rights here for more than 100 years. But a couple years from now – that’s just a few fish generations away – the Penobscot expect to be able to fish in the river as their ancestors once did.
BANKS: Let’s just go up a little bit further. There’s a place up here where eagles often perch.
BASCOMB: For Living on Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb on the Penobscot River in Central Maine.