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

Dam Demolition

Air Date: Week of

On July 1, the 995-foot-wide Edwards Dam was breached in Augusta, Maine, allowing the Kennebec River to run free for the first time in 162 years. This marks the first time that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission denied an application to re-license an operating dam. Margaret Bowman, Senior Director of the Dams Program for the group American Rivers, spoke with Steve Curwood about the precedent set by the Edwards removal.


CURWOOD: This is Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Over the decades, at least 75,000 dams higher than 5 feet, and countless smaller ones, have gone up across the US. Dams generate power, control floods, regulate water flow for navigation, and divert water for irrigation. But they also block fish migrations and degrade water quality. So, with many dams growing old and becoming obsolete nowadays, some are coming down.

(Large water flow)

MAN: (Shouting) The water will rise progressively until it gets to the top of the bank, but the Kennebec is now running free.

CURWOOD: On July 1, the 990-foot long Edwards Dam in Augusta, Maine, came down, allowing the Kennebec River to run free for the first time in 162 years. It also marked the first time that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ever denied an application to re-license an operating dam. Margaret Bowman is with American Rivers, one of the groups whose work led to the breaching of the dam.

BOWMAN: The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licenses the Edwards dam. And when the dam owner sought to renew that license when it expired, we intervened and recommended that dam removal be considered as an alternative. And there was a lot of scientific review of that alternative and economic review of that alternative. And we believed and the powers that be agreed that the fish restoration needs were much more important than the power generation that was provided by the dam.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, though, if restoring the Kennebec River at this point won't destroy some habitats that have developed upstream and downstream based on the dam being there.

BOWMAN: Well, creating a reservoir creates a different habitat than you had when the river was free-flowing. You are going to lose a few wetlands upstream, but you're going to gain some downstream. You are going to lose some flatwater recreation behind the dam, but this is in the Lake District of Maine, where there are many other lakes that people can recreate on and that the fish species in lakes abound.

CURWOOD: How did this go over with the local population in Maine?

BOWMAN: This was an effort supported by almost everybody. The Governor of Maine is firmly behind this, the full Congressional delegation, and most of the grassroots community. And it's going to benefit the local fishing community, the local recreation community. And the City of Augusta is going to get a city park out of it. There are some opponents that are still out there that are worried about taking away something that they have looked at their whole lives, but that is definitely the minority in the state of Maine.

CURWOOD: I'm going to ask you to adopt another profession for a moment: historian. How important was removal of the Edwards Dam in the sweep of ecological history, do you think?

BOWMAN: Dams have been removed in the past, and dams will be removed in the future. But this dam has received a lot of attention. It's the largest dam that has been removed in the past 25 years, and it has really turned the tide in how dam removal is viewed in our country. It used to be considered a radical, infeasible concept to remove a large dam. Now it's being considered a reasonable alternative. That doesn't mean it is the solution in every situation, but it is doable from the economic and engineering standpoint, and it is a way to restore healthy fishery populations.

CURWOOD: Now, it's your job at American Rivers to pay attention to dams all over this country. So tell us: what other large dams are being taken down these days?

BOWMAN: Well, we are aware of about 121 dams that have been removed across the country. Many of those dams have been removed in the last decade. There have been 86 removed since 1990, and a full 27 removed just last year. A lot of those were in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Many of these are very small dams. They have no remaining purpose. They were very important in fueling our leap into the industrial age, but their use has expired and they are now simply blocking fish. They may have some historic value, and that is considered in dam removal, but the best use of rivers is often, with abandoned dams, to remove those.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering about Washington State's Snake River system. There are 4 dams on the lower Snake. There's a lot of lobbying to have them removed, to bring the salmon back there. Looking at the politics of the situation on the Snake River, does it seem unlikely, possible, highly likely, those dams will go?

BOWMAN: Well, I think you have to be a fortune teller to be able to predict that at this time.

CURWOOD: So how are your tarot cards?

BOWMAN: (Laughs) My tarot cards are giving it a 50-50 chance right now. But clearly, one thing that must be addressed before the dams on the Snake River will be removed is how to mitigate for the impacts that dam removal will cause to the shipping industry and to others. We need to come up with a mitigation package for those people to make sure that everybody is made whole if dam removal is considered the best scientific solution for the endangered species.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time today. Margaret Bowman is Senior Director of the Dams Program at American Rivers. Thanks.

BOWMAN: Thanks, Steve.



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