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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Anniversary of Edwards Dam Removal

Air Date: Week of

It’s been a year since the removal of Maine’s Edwards Dam, and environmentalists, scientists and fishermen alike have noted dramatic improvements in and around the Kennebec River. The success of the project is seen as a model for river restoration across the country. Naomi Schalit (NEIGH-OH-MEE SHUH-LEET) of Maine Public Radio reports.


CURWOOD: A year ago July first, history was made in Maine as the Edwards Dam was demolished. It was the first major dam in modern times to be removed against the wishes of its owners. The 162-year-old dam spanned the Kennebec River in the capitol city of Augusta, and was a potent symbol of the region's industrial heritage. But that manufacturing muscle came at a cost. Fisheries almost died out; water quality plummeted. But as Maine Public Radio's Naomi Schalit reports, one year after the dam's removal, the river is on its way back to life.

(A boat cuts through water)

SCHALIT: Almost a decade ago, the battle to remove the Edwards Dam was in its infancy. That's when Steve Brook built this boat, an eighteen-and-a-half-foot motor canoe. He was the coordinator of the Kennebec Coalition, the lead group pressing for dam removal. That Steve Brook would one day launch his canoe at the Augusta boat ramp, just below the site of the old Edwards Dam, and power it upriver seemed an impossible dream. But that's exactly what we're doing this steamy, hot summer day.

BROOK: We're coming up to the island that is just below where the Edwards Dam once was on the east side of the river. And the tide is very full right now, so there's a lot of water all over the place in here.

SCHALIT: A lot of water, and a lot of fish.

BROOK: I just saw some stripers working on the east side of the river, just upstream. Every time I come out I see bald eagles, osprey, lots of great blue heron, all predators feeding on the fishery population here in the river.

SCHALIT: The Edwards removal opened up 18 miles of critical upriver habitat for fish. And it provided prime hunting grounds for another migratory species, the sport fisherman. In the old days, when this section of the river was a polluted impoundment, anglers were more likely to catch what one sportswriter called "a soggy ribbon of toilet paper" than a fish. But last fall, for the first time in more than a century and a half, a fisherman caught a striped bass in Waterville, 17 miles above the old dam site. Alewives two million strong have migrated up to Waterville, too. American shad were caught there this spring. And throughout this morning on the river, we've seen huge, five-foot-long Atlantic sturgeon. The largest sea-run fish in eastern North America, they've breached repeatedly in front of us, virtually standing up on their tails.

(A cog turns)

SCHALIT: Back at the Augusta boat ramp in the shadow of a rusty old bridge, fishermen haul their boats out of the water. Dan Gerard does harbor master duty for Augusta. He's down at this urban launch every day, early. He's been seeing a lot of anglers.

GERARD: Yeah, they're here all the time. In the morning, come down here five o'clock in the morning, that boat land is packed.

(A reel is cast)

FLOWERS: The dam didn't do anything for me except for stop fish and make them maybe a little easier to catch right where we are before.

SCHALIT: John Flowers is a fisherman from West Gardner, downriver.

GARDNER: Two weeks ago we were up in Sydney, checking out the old boat launch with my wife. We were fishing for smallmouth bass just on the shore. And she caught, like a 22-inch striper. You'd never have that happen, you know, for the last hundred years, so.

SCHALIT: The fishermen and the fish know what scientists are now beginning to document: the Kennebec's on the road back to health. It was a ten-year fight to remove the Edwards Dam. Environmentalists argued during that time that taking it out meant the return of clean water and the restoration of fisheries. But that assertion had never been tested anywhere else.

CORTEMANCH: [phonetic spelling] There was a lot of speculation because this hadn't been done. Certainly hadn't been done on a large river.

SCHALIT: Dave Cortemanch [phonetic spelling] is a scientist for Maine's Department of Environmental Protection. He says that within months of the removal, water quality had improved dramatically.

CORTEMANCH: [phonetic spelling] What's happened, really, has confirmed all the predictions we had. So with the dam out, the river has rebounded. It's gone back to a functional river system. I think the remarkable thing, the thing that we learned out of this, that we didn't anticipate, is how fast that would happen.

DUMONT: The fishermen say well, now the fish are back. The fish have always been here. They just couldn't get over the obstruction, over the dam.

SCHALIT: That's Dick Dumont. He was the lone dissenter when the Augusta City Council voted to endorse the dam's removal. He says no matter how fine the river looks, he'll probably never think it was a good idea to take out Edwards. That's because the city collected money from the dam's operation, almost a million dollars in property taxes and fees. There will be more dollars coming in from increased recreational use of the river, so Mr. Dumont's philosophical.

DUMONT: The city is not going to die and life is going to go on, and maybe it will all be for the better. And I'm not against that. But we did lose some of our revenues.

SCHALIT: The river level dropped around 19 feet where the old impoundment had been. The raw, muddy banks are now greening up. From fish to stone flies, all the things that characterize a healthy river are coming back. Dam removal advocates across the country are watching the Kennebec for ammunition in their efforts. Chris Zimmer works for Washington State's Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. His group wants to pull down four dams on the Snake River.

ZIMMER: The model out there on the Kennebec River showed that when you bring all parties to the table, when you look at the science, when you look at the economics, we can remove the dams that are threatening our fish. We can do it affordably. And we can actually increase the quality of life we have here in the region.

SCHALIT: Maine scientist Dave Cortemanch [phonetic spelling] has a word of advice for those questioning the wisdom of dam removal. Taking down dams brings back life, he says. He points to the old phrase, "Build it and they will come," and he turns it on his head. Destroy it and they will come, he says. For Living on Earth, I'm Naomi Schalit in Augusta, Maine.



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