A river runs through it

Dismantling dam: Maine project signals need to weigh environmental benefit against hydroelectric needs.

July 13, 1999

THE demolition of the 162-year-old Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine this month signals a welcome new way to view our nation's rivers: Waterways are to be valued for their environmental and recreational benefits -- not just as producers of cheap power.

With some 75,000 big dams blocking the flow of U.S. rivers, more demolitions will likely follow, as federal and state authorities focus on restoring lost fisheries and biota and enhancing recreational boating.

The Independence Day breaching of the Edwards Dam marked the first federally ordered destruction of a private hydroelectric dam. Its power output was minuscule (at a high price) and the structure blocked 17 miles of spawning ground for striped bass and nine other species (with an estimated sport fishing value of $48 million).

Edwards was an easy target. Still, compromise ruled the resolution: the owner, the community and neighboring industry all got concessions to ease the dam's disappearance.

Harder battles are in store elsewhere, especially in the West, where water rights and hydroelectric power have a fierce, entrenched constituency.

More than 120 dams have been razed voluntarily in the past 60 years, leading to the recovery of many free-flowing fish streams. It's a proven success.

Each hydro dam must be honestly evaluated on its own conditions; dismantling of selected dams must occur in a reasonable, effective manner. But the Edwards Dam demolition proves that, sometimes, environmental concerns deserve to trump energy needs.

Pub Date: 7/13/99

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