By Robin Meadows
Illustration ©Astrid Dininno/SIS
Maine’s Kennebec River was renowned for its magnificent runs of salmon, sturgeon, and other anadromous fish until their migration was blocked by the 1837 construction of Edwards Dam in Augusta. Opposed by citizens of Maine before it was even built, the privately-owned dam stood for more than 160 years despite a number of attempts to remove it. Then in the early 1980s, a handful of anglers in the Kennebec Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited had the wild — and ultimately successful — idea of convincing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to deny the relicensing of Edwards Dam.
October 2000 marked the first anniversary of the dam’s complete removal, and the story of how this idea became a reality shows the importance of doing everything you can think of to achieve your goal, of forming alliances with key stakeholders, and even of compromising with the opposition. The 10-plus years of intensive effort were well worth it: so far the recovery of the newly-undammed stretch of the Kennebec River has exceeded all expectations.
The Kennebec flows 230 miles from Moosehead Lake to Merrymeeting Bay, which is on the coast of Maine near Bath and is New England’s largest freshwater tidal estuary. The unique combination of these extensive fish nursery grounds with the Kennebec’s extensive spawning grounds gave the river one of the most diverse and abundant fish populations in the region. All 10 of the anadromous fish species native to Maine spawned in the Kennebec. There were so many alewives (a large herring) that they “crowded one upon another to the depth of a foot,” according to James Sullivan’s 1795 History of the District of Maine. Salmon were so plentiful that a contract between a hay farmer and his laborer stipulated that they could only be served once a day.
The Kennebec’s rich anadromous fish populations were devastated by Edwards Dam, which was originally built to power a saw mill and provide passage for barges. The site was right where the tidal influence ends, about 40 miles from the river’s mouth on the Atlantic Ocean, which meant that the dam blocked virtually all fish migration. Although the dam initially had a fish ladder, floods washed it away the very next spring. In defiance of a 1797 Commonwealth requirement that dams on the Kennebec have fish passages, the first owners of Edwards Dam refused to replace the ladder, and subsequent owners all followed suit. Even if fish had been able to pass Edwards, many would not have been able to breed because the 917-foot-wide, 25-foot-tall dam inundated the river’s most important spawning habitat, the 17-mile stretch between Augusta and the next dam in Waterville.
Edwards Dam flooded more than 1,000 acres, turning them into an aquatic wasteland. Too deep to be a river and yet too shallow to be a lake, the impounded area favored small mouth bass and other opportunistic species that aren’t picky about where they live. But most of the bottom-dwelling organisms at the base of the food chain could no longer survive.
Because more than 90 percent of New England’s anadromous fish spawning grounds are gone, fisheries biologists have repeatedly pressed for the removal of Edwards Dam. For instance, they tried to get the dam removed in 1974 when a flood washed out a 150-foot section; but their pleas went unheeded, and the dam was rebuilt the following year.
Then in 1986 the Maine Department of Marine Resources began developing a plan to restore anadromous fish in the Kennebec. By 1987 the owners of seven dams upriver from Edwards had agreed to install fishways for alewife, American shad, and Atlantic salmon. However, the upriver dam owners’ willingness to help had no practical effect because the Edwards was the first dam on the river and its owners refused to participate.
Used in various ways during its long history, Edwards Dam began generating electricity in 1984. While extremely profitable to the owners, who had a contract guaranteeing them several times the going rate for electricity until 1998, this use ultimately led to the dam’s downfall. Hydroelectric dams are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and a 1986 amendment to the Federal Power Act required the FERC to give equal consideration to generating power and to preserving environmental quality when considering a dam’s license.
Hydrodam licenses last up to 50 years, and Edwards Dam was coming up for relicensing in 1993 — providing a window of opportunity for removing it. In hopes of convincing the FERC to deny relicensing, in 1989 the Kennebec Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited formed the Kennebec Coalition with four national conservation organizations, American Rivers, Atlantic Salmon Federation, Natural Resources Council of Maine, and Trout Unlimited. The Coalition knew their chances were slim. “Back then, no one else wanted to touch dam removal,” says American Rivers coalition member Steve Brooke.
The first step in the process of hydrodam relicensing is for the owners to file an application with the FERC two years in advance. In 1991, the owners of Edwards Dam applied to extend their contract for 50 years and to more than triple their hydropower capacity. The dam owners were also required by law to notify federal, state, and local natural resources agencies.
The second step in the process is for the FERC to evaluate the hydrodam’s impact on the environment, which involves preparing an Environmental Impact Statement and collecting comments from resource agencies. The FERC also had to consider a Kennebec River restoration plan that the State of Maine Planning Office had developed under the direction of the state legislature.
It soon became clear that the Kennebec Coalition had some powerful allies. Then Governor John McKernan of Maine, the state legislature, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all called for the dam’s removal. “From the beginning, we favored dam removal because a number of species don’t use fishways — they can work for salmon because they’re attracted to flowing water but sturgeon migrate along the bottom,” says Gordon Russell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Old Town, Maine. Of the 10 anadromous species that historically spawned in the Kennebec River, four do not use fish passages, striped bass, rainbow smelt, and both Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon.
However, in 1996 the FERC issued a preliminary recommendation to relicense Edwards Dam with the stipulation that the owners build a fish passage specified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Under the Federal Power Act, the Service has the authority to require fishways for dams under FERC jurisdiction.
In the meantime, the Kennebec Coalition was making an airtight case for removing Edwards Dam. “It was not a one-sided analysis,” says coalition member Margaret Bowman of American Rivers in Washington, D.C. “We carefully examined the pros and cons, documented the benefits, and addressed the negative issues to convince others that removal was the best option even in the worst-case scenario.”
The Kennebec coalition showed that removal was the best alternative on seven fronts: economic, engineering, legal, philosophical, political, scientific, and social. For instance, the fish passage specified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would have cost $9 million and would have helped restore only three of the river’s anadromous fish species, while removing the dam would have cost 40% less and would have helped restore all 10 species.
Then in 1997 the seemingly impossible happened. In its final Environmental Impact Statement, the FERC recommended removing Edwards Dam. Ruling that the economic and environmental benefits of dam removal exceeded the hydropower benefits, the FERC ordered removal at the owners’ expense.
Not surprisingly, the owners of Edwards Dam balked. They were in a no-win situation: keeping the dam would have meant paying for the fish passage as well as earning less when their lucrative utility contract expired in 1998, but giving up the dam would have meant paying for and being liable for its removal. As an added complication, the City of Augusta had been co-licensee of the dam since 1992 and was loathe to give up its share of the hydropower revenue.
To try to keep the dam owners and the City of Augusta from going to court and holding up restoration for who knows how long, the Kennebec Coalition approached the State Planning Office and asked if the State would play an active role in arriving at a settlement. The new governor, Angus King, agreed, and State Planning Office director Evan Richert and the coalition led negotiations for the State. “We needed to find a way where no one party was unduly injured,” says Richert. For its part, the State of Maine offered to take ownership of Edwards Dam, as well as both the responsibility and liability for removing it.
The next step was to build trust among the negotiating parties. “The Governor talked to the dam owners and the City to gain their confidence. He built rapport with the dam owners and even went to an Augusta City Council meeting,” says Richert.
But trust only goes so far, and in the end it all came down to money. Funding was a stumbling block until the Kennebec Coalition found a creative solution. Extending their focus beyond the 17-mile stretch impounded by Edwards Dam, the coalition cut deals with stakeholders both up and down the river.
The seven upriver dam owners and Bath Iron Works, a ship builder at the mouth of the Kennebec, agreed to pay the nearly $3 million cost of removing Edwards Dam as well as to fund a $4.85 million, 15-year program to restore anadromous fish to the river. In exchange, the upriver dam owners got to renegotiate their agreement to install fish passages. Rather than having to build them in 1998, they can now wait until the fish return. Bath Iron Works got to use its contribution to restoring the Kennebec as partial mitigation for expanding its shipyard into several acres of coastal wetland. “The Kennebec Coalition was sophisticated; they knew when to compromise. Being absolutist would have delayed restoration,” says Richert.
As co-licensee of Edwards Dam, the City of Augusta also needed something to make up for the revenue it would lose. To make Augusta happy, the State Planning Office took responsibility for the dam’s former mill site, a mildly contaminated brownfield, restored it, and then gave it to the city. The Planning Office also helped Augusta get grants to improve its riverfront. With all obstacles gone at long last, the settlement to remove Edwards Dam was signed in 1998, and the dam was removed between July and October 1999.
The newly-undammed stretch of the Kennebec River rebounded rapidly. There has been a tremendous increase in the diversity and abundance of bottom-dwelling invertebrates such as caddis, may, and stone fly larvae. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection found that diversity doubled from about 6 to 12 species per sample, and that abundance increased about 40-fold from roughly 50 to nearly 2,000 per sample.
The Department of Environmental Protection uses these bottom-dwelling invertebrates as indicators of freshwater quality and rates river water on a scale of A to C. Before Edwards Dam was removed, the Kennebec sometimes failed to meet the criteria for Class C. Now the river’s water quality has risen to a solid Class B.
Moreover, anadromous fish have begun returning to the Kennebec for the first time since the construction of Edwards Dam. While it is too soon for comprehensive data on the fishes’ recovery, what the Maine Department of Marine Resources does know is encouraging. Within three months of the dam’s removal, schools of alewives and striped bass migrated past the former dam site. Within a year, American bass, Atlantic salmon, shad, and sturgeon were also migrating up the river.
“It came as a surprise that the river rebounded so quickly and dramatically,” says Kennebec Coalition Coordinator Betsy Ham, who is the River Advocate for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “No one was sure what would happen; there’s no precedent for a river of this size. Now we know that if left to its own devices, a river can come back to life.”
While this was hardly the first time that a dam has been removed in the U.S., the removal of Edwards Dam marked many firsts. Besides being one of the largest dams ever removed, Edwards is the first hydrodam that has been removed in the U.S. More significantly, this is the only time the FERC has ruled that the environmental costs of a hydrodam outweighed the economic benefits. “The FERC decision fell in favor of the environment for the first time,” says American Rivers coalition member Brooke.
Even more significantly, this is the first time the FERC has ordered a dam removed against the owner’s wishes. “Prior to Edwards, the FERC didn’t think it had that authority. This established that it does have the authority to remove dams,” says American Rivers’ Bowman.
And that has changed everything in the world of dams. Now, instead of being considered a wild idea, removal is a standard option when evaluating dams, says Bowman. Take the four hydrodams on the Snake River in Washington State. While the dams provide the cheapest electricity nationwide, conservation groups are calling for their removal because they also block the migration of threatened salmon. “The battle over the Snake River dams wouldn’t even be happening without the precedent of removing Edwards Dam,” says Bowman.
The implications for conservation practitioners are equally profound. “Don’t be afraid to think big,” says Bowman. “Dam removal was an unheard of concept 10 years ago. Then a group of people in Maine dared to ask the question ‘What if we removed the dam?’ Who knows what that wacky question is today?”
For more information on the removal of Edwards Dam, go to American Rivers Online, “Edwards Dam Removal, Kennebec River, Maine.”
At the same web site, for more information on dam removal in general, go to “Dam Removal Success Stories: Restoring Rivers through Selective Removal of Dams that Don’t Make Sense.”
About the Author
Robin Meadows is a freelance science writer specializing in conservation.