Maine returning river to its fish Dam: Conservationists and changing economics swayed officials to approve the dismantling of Edwards Dam, where the Kennebec River's fish population was once abundant and diverse.

Sun Journal

August 16, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

AUGUSTA, Maine -- It took more than 160 years, but then, fishermen are nothing if not patient.

Next year, they'll finally see the dismantling of the Edwards Dam, built in 1837 where the Kennebec River flows through here. Anglers had long protested, even before the dam was erected, that the dam would block salmon, striped bass and other fish as they swam upstream to spawn.

"This is the end of the road for them," Pete Didisheim said as he gazed at the veritable wall of water coursing over the dam.

The river's once abundant and diverse fish population plummeted after the dam was built. But through the efforts of conservationists like Didisheim, the advocacy director of the National Resources Council of Maine, fish will regain their long-lost passage to their former spawning grounds.

The removal of the dam, conservationists say, is the first step in restoring what once was the Eastern seaboard's most diverse population of sea-run fish. It could turn the Kennebec into one of the most attractive destinations for sport fishermen -- as well as serve as a model to other conservationists across the country.

"We can really start thinking about the river as a river again," said Steve Brooke, coordinator of the Kennebec Coalition, which led the fight against the dam.

In the end, what turned the conservationists' long-running battle toward victory was the changing economics of Maine as much as renewed concern for its fish population.

Over the years, the Edwards Dam had become increasingly irrelevant. It had been built to provide hydropower for the textile and saw mills that once flourished on the Kennebec's banks. By the early 1980s, however, the mills were gone. Much of the once-bountiful supply of fish disappeared as they were unable to reach their spawning grounds.

Yet the dam remained.

"A hundred years ago, the benefit was the jobs created by the dam," Brooke said. "That isn't the case anymore."

After the mills closed, the dam was used to create electricity that was then sold, under an old contract, to Central Maine Power at several times the market rate. Eventually, the small amount of electricity produced by the dam -- 3.5 megawatts, about 0.1 percent of the state's total demand -- and the fact that there are cheaper ways to produce power, paved the way for conservationists' arguments to be heard.

After a long and litigation-filled process, the conservationists won. In May, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and other officials donned waders, walked hip-deep into the Kennebec, fly-fished for the cameras and made the official announcement: The Edwards Dam would come down.

The battle to bring down the dam has been watched closely by other states. In Idaho, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering the demolition of four dams on the Snake River to prevent extinction of wild salmon. In Washington state, the removal of a dam blocking salmon passage on the Elwha River has won budgetary approval.

Increasingly, officials are seeing that the difficulty and cost of trying to accommodate fish passage around the dams can be greater than taking the structures down and letting nature have its way.

Because of the protests from fishermen, the Edwards Dam was built with a fish ladder to provide passage. But a spring flood the following year washed it away, and it was never rebuilt.

Most recently, the measures designed to help the fish get past the dam have turned extraordinary: A pump is used to suck

alewives, an important food source for larger fish, into a containment area downstream from the Edwards Dam, then driven by truck to a spawning habitat.

The costs have become exorbitant. When the Edwards Dam's license to operate was scheduled to expire in 1993, the renewal became contingent on providing adequate fish passage. The cost of such measures, however, was estimated at some $9 million.

The arguments before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission went back and forth for years. In November, the commission voted to deny the dam's re-licensing application -- the first time in the agency's history that it ever refused such a request.

The dam's owners, the Edwards Manufacturing Co., will turn the dam over to the state in January. To help pay for the removal of the dam, Maine will receive $2.5 million from another company, Bath Iron Works, which is expanding its shipyard at the mouth of the Kennebec 40 miles to the south of the dam. Operators of other dams upstream from the Edwards will also contribute to the project's costs.

Even as conservationists are celebrating their landmark victory, though, they warn that the removal of the dam is just one step toward restoring the once-thriving river. Seventeen miles of the Kennebec will be freed, but some fish will still be halted by other dams to the north.

"Taking down the dam still will not accomplish everything that needs to be done," Brooke said. "The Atlantic salmon will still probably want to go farther up."

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