Purchase of Dams Opens New Chapter for Penobscot

Great Works Dam, the first dam scheduled to be removed.

From TU’s Jeff Reardon, who has worked on the recovery of Atlantic salmon in Maine’s rivers. He wrote this piece upon the announcement in late December that the Penobscot River Restoration Trust is now the owner of three working hydro dams on the Penobscot River. The first dam on the river is scheduled for next summer.

Listen to Jeff’s podcast on the project.

TU first hired me in 1999, just about the time that TU filed a lawsuit to list salmon as endangered. At the very beginning we identified the need to focus on Maine’s big rivers, especially the Penobscot, and on dam removal on those rivers, as essential elements in any recovery plan.

It was a hollow victory when the federal agencies listed Maine salmon as endangered, but only on 8 small rivers. (The listing was later changed to include the Kennebec, Androscoggin, and Penobscot—Maine’s three largest rivers.) Salmon had the legal protection we wanted for them, but the most important habitat for their recovery didn’t “count” as part of the recovery effort. Take a look at the returns of salmon to rivers in Maine this year, and it is immediately obvious why the Penobscot matters—just over 1300 salmon returned to the Penobscot this year, and less than 150 to the rest of the rivers with counting facilities.

So when the National Academy of Science convened a panel to look at recovery efforts, TU—and lots of other folks, including the Atlantic Salmon Federation, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and the Penobscot Indian Nation—made a series of presentations about the importance of the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers. Edwards Dam had just been removed on the Kennebec, and salmon, alewives, shad and two species of sturgeon were already documented in the river upstream. Here’s a video of striped bass feeding on juvenile alewives as they drop out of the Webber Pond and into the Kennebec. This run of alewife is completely restored, after more than 150 years of being blocked. If you’re fishing on the Kennebec in the fall, you better bring your juvie alewife patterns!

At the same time, we were participating in the early stages of negotiations for “something big” on the Penobscot, with all the folks above, plus a host of other partners, including PPL Maine, the owner of the dams, the state of Maine, the US Department of Interior, and other conservation groups. Those efforts were coming close to a deal in 2004 when the NAS completed its report—and identified both a focus on the Penobscot, and “a program of dam removal” as “urgently needed actions.”

A few months later, all of the parties announced a deal to do just that: purchase three dams; remove the lowest two dams on the Penobscot; decommission and bypass the first dam on the Piscataquis River, a major tributary; improve fish passage at the remaining dams; and implement a series of upgrades at the remaining dams to allow all of this to be done with no loss of hydropower generation. A new organization, the Penobscot River Restoration Trust (the Trust), was created to purchase the dams and remove the dams.
Here’s a nice “flyover” video that the Nature Conservancy (who have joined the project and helped make it a reality) put together explaining the project.
And now, after 6 years of work, the Trust, along with TU and all the other partners, is about to start removing dams. The removal of the Great Works Dam is scheduled for next summer, with removal of the Veazie Dam and construction of the bypass to follow over the next several years. Here’s a link to the press release on the December announcement that the Trust is now the proud owner of three working hydro dams. (And here’s hoping they don’t have to own them very long before they come out.)

So, after a decade of work, how do I feel today? Relieved to have a huge job behind us. Satisfied. Grateful for the incredibly diverse set of folks who made this happen—everyone from the operational staff at the hydro dams who helped figure out where we could “make up” the energy, to the citizens of the northern Maine town of Howland who donated an easement on town land for the bypass channel, to Senators Snowe and Collins and Congressman Michaud for helping to make this project a federal restoration priority.

And hopeful. A few years from now, salmon will find a wide open river instead of three inefficient fishways. A host of other species—eels, shad, alewives, two species of sturgeon—will have access to the non-tidal sections of the Penobscot for the first time in well over a century. (Check out this great stuff on eels from our friend James Prosek in the New York Times.
That’s the first step towards a restored Penobscot—a river where members of the Penobscot Indian Nation and early settlers used to fight over the right to fish in “Shad Rips”; where every town had a “salmon club” with a rod rack and a bench full of old timers on the river bank; where cod fishermen knew to bait their trawls with alewives when the cod chased the spring run of herring up Penobscot Bay into the river; and where a trip up the river by canoe from Bangor to the village at Indian Island required portages around rapids with names like Big Rock (where Veazie Dam now sits); Ayers Falls (partially flooded by the Veazie Dam); Bad Falls (where Great Works Dam now sits); and Shad Rips (partially flooded by the Great Works Dam).

Next summer, when the Great Works Dam is out of the river, I’ll be racing Scott Phillips, paddling entrepreneur and Penobscot Indian Nation member, to be one of the first canoes through those “new” rapids. Scott’s a far better paddler than me, so I better get in the river well ahead of him if I want to get credit for the “first run”!

–Jeff Reardon, Trout Unlimited

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