Saving America's rivers

July 21, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

AUGUSTA, Maine -- Steve Brooke steers his Boston Whaler up the Kennebec River, past half a dozen great blue heron standing like dignified sentries along the banks.

Above us are the ospreys and beneath us are the striped bass who have found their way back home. But looking out at this bucolic scene, he says flatly, "This was an open sewer 20 years ago."

Mr. Brooke, who has helped coordinate the Kennebec Coalition to restore this waterway, traces his ancestry back to the beaver trapping party that ventured here in 1629. He knows that the history of rivers is, in some ways, the history of America.

Once the Kennebec was a fishery so full of shad and salmon, alewife and sturgeon that in 1723, a French priest wrote "a person could fill 50,000 barrels in a day, if he could endure the labor." In time, it became a waterway for the sloops bringing granite to the big cities, a power source for the mills, and then finally, disgracefully, a watery waste dump.

When the smell of sulfur peeled paint off the walls of buildings along the banks, the city of Augusta turned its back to the river, warning children away from its dangers. As Tim Glidden of Maine's Natural Resources Council, our other companion on this summer day, remembers succinctly, "It was vile."

But today Maine is moving forward by running the reel of history backward. The mills are gone and in the wake of the Clean Water Act, chemicals and sewage have been reduced. The fish are coming back. All that remains now is the dam.

We drop anchor near the Edwards Dam, a 917-foot relic built in 1837. For 161 years, this dam has blocked at least 10 species of fish from 18 miles of ancestral spawning grounds.

This morning, as if on cue, a 4-foot sturgeon leaps out of the water, as if to make Mr. Brooke's point: "They are all right here, waiting to go up."

By this time next year, the fish and the river will once again run free.

This is the remarkable story being played out on this waterway. When the dam was built, water powered the Industrial Revolution. A free-flowing river was seen as wasteful and a dam was cheered as progress.

Here, hydropower once ran a mill that employed 800 workers. But when a coalition of anglers and environmentalists finally won out over a power company this year, the dam's removal became the symbol of progress.

For the first time ever, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission refused to relicense a hydroelectric dam. For the first time, they chose the future of the fish over the power of the past. They ruled that restoring the river was more important than maintaining a dam that produces a mere one-tenth of 1 percent of Maine's electricity. Now an agreement has been signed to restore not a single species, but an entire habitat.

So the dam is coming down. To describe this as a sea change, the turning of a historic tide, is far too aquatic a metaphor even for a morning on the Kennebec. But there it is.

The change from dam-building to dam-busting is one of attitudes as well as economics. As Tim Glidden describes it, "The idea of progress was once to harness nature, bend it to our will. . . . Now the center of gravity has shifted from controlling and exploiting natural resources to conserving and restoring them."

Out west this past week, Bruce Babbitt, interior secretary, put a symbolic sledgehammer to two other dams doing more harm than good on spawning streams in California and Oregon. He declared it "one small blow for salmon."

"Dams are not the pyramids of Egypt, not eternal structures," Mr. Babbitt said in an interview. "We need to think of them as tools. And the mix of needs for society has changed a whole lot." Dams now will be judged by that mix.

Back 160 years ago, nobody ever thought there might be a day when salmon were rare, when a fishery would be more important than a mill. We never thought there would come a time when the energy that went into controlling nature would go into putting things back where they belong.

But now the rivers offer a different sense of place. The great "public works" projects of our own time are shifting from building to restoration.

This day, as we return to shore, Mr. Brooke steps gingerly out of the Whaler and, waving goodbye, offers the old political adage as a new environmental prophecy, "As Maine goes, so goes the nation."

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/21/98

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