Rebirth of a River

The Dismantling of the Edwards Dam
  |  Gorp.com

In September 1999, anglers on Maine's Kennebec River caught striped bass upstream of the Edwards Dam for the first time in 162 years.

The Kennebec teemed with fish until 1837, when the Edwards Dam was slung across the river in Augusta. The dam shut the door on 17 miles of prime breeding ground for anadromous fish—ocean-dwelling fish that spawn in fresh water—annihilating populations of Atlantic salmon, striped bass, sturgeon and six other species of migratory fish.

But in 1997, a decade-long battle between a coalition of conservation groups who wanted the dam removed and its owners—who did not—resulted in an unexpected and unprecedented victory for the fish.

For the first time in its history, The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ordered the removal of a dam against the wishes of its owners, and on July 1, 1999, demolition crews began dismantling the industrial revolution-era relic.

Outlived Usefulness
Dams represent one of the oldest attempts by man to control Mother Nature, and more than 75,000 of them alter the flow of rivers throughout the United States. And that's not including tens of thousands of smaller dams (less than five feet tall) scattered throughout the nation.

Dams generate hydroelectric power, control floodwaters, store drinking water and irrigate crops. But many have long since outlived their usefulness, causing for more ill than good by walling off spawning grounds from migratory fish, flooding wildlife habitat, degrading water quality and inhibiting recreation.

The Edwards Dam, for instance, was built to power the sawmills that once formed the bedrock of the local economy. But the mills are long gone and other energy sources long ago rendered the dam's contribution imperceptible.

A nationwide, grass-roots movement has quietly been tackling the issue of dam removal for years. Three nonprofits, Trout Unlimited, American Rivers and Friends of the Earth, recently issued a report documenting the removal of more than 465 dams throughout the United States because of environmental concerns, public safety and economic issues. Copies of the report can be found on their Web sites (www.tu.org, www.amrivers.org, www.foe.org).

Joining Forces
The removal of the Edwards Dam had its unlikely beginnings in 1980, when a group of local anglers formed the Kennebec Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Their initial goal was a modest one—convince the dam owners, the Edwards Manufacturing Company, to install a fish passageway.

But when the anglers began to study the problem, they decided to aim higher and began lobbying for the dam's removal. By 1989, Trout Unlimited joined forces with American Rivers, the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Natural Resources Council of Maine to form the Kennebec Coalition.

In 1993, the dam's operating license expired with the FERC, the federal agency charged with overseeing and authorizing the nation's hydroelectric dams. The coalition seized the opportunity to fight the renewal of the dam's license.

Besides highlighting the dam's devastating effect on fish populations, the coalition pointed out that the dam produced just 0.1 of one percent of Maine's electrical power, and trumpeted the environmental and economic benefits that would result from the uncorking of the Kennebec.

Watershed Decision
Why the Edwards was Axed

The coalition nearly lost in 1996, when the FERC issued a preliminary finding recommending relicensing of the Dam, providing the owners constructed a fish passageway.

The coalition launched an 11th-hour counterattack, and was able to declare victory on November 25, 1997, when the FERC reversed itself and ordered the removal of the dam. The FERC's groundbreaking decision marked the first time the agency ever denied an application to relicense a dam, let alone ordering its removal.

The dam-removal order decision owes much to legislation passed by Congress in 1986, which requires the FERC to take into account both power generation and environmental protection when issuing licenses.

Indeed, when issuing his surprise decision, FERC Chairman James J. Hoecker said that it "reflects a balanced view of environmental as well as social and economic considerations."

Sea Change?
Rebecca Wodder, President of American Rivers, says the removal of the dam represents a historic step, and sets an encouraging precedent.

"The Edwards Dam decision is nationally significant because it shows us that dam removal is a very reasonable and feasible option for restoring healthy rivers and saving imperiled fish," said Wooder.

As fish population in the Kennebec recovers, the Natural Resources Council of Maine says, so too will the number of eagles, osprey, kingfishers, cormorants and other wildlife along the river down to the Merrymeeting Bay—the largest U.S. freshwater tidal basin north of the Chesapeake.

The dam's eradication is also expected to yield substantial economic benefits along the Kennebec thanks to increased sport fishing, recreational boating, and tourism. American Rivers says increased sport fishing alone will pump an additional $48 million a year into local communities.

"Nationally, there has been a real change in how we think about dams," said Jeff Reardon, Trout Unlimited's New England Conservation Coordinator. "We used to think about dams as a permanent part of the landscape. Now we think of them as structures with costs and benefits, and when the cost outweighs the benefits, we should be thinking of removal."


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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