Perhaps no other injury to a river is as profound as the construction of a dam.
On July 1, 1999, as a church bell broke the stillness of the morning, I had the great privilege of witnessing the rebirth of Maine’s Kennebec River as it flowed free for the first time in 162 years. Since then, I have had the opportunity to observe numerous other dam removals, but none quite as moving, successful, and ultimately transformative.
Edwards Dam was built in Augusta, Maine, in 1837 to ease navigation and harness energy. That act drowned 17 miles (27 kilometers) of riffles and rapids and the unique character of this magnificent river. The Kennebec River was once home to all ten species of migratory fish native to Maine—including Atlantic salmon, American shad, several species of herring, alewife, and Shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon—along with several thriving commercial fisheries. Damming the river not only transformed the natural landscape but it also ushered in an era of industrialization, pollution, degradation, and neglect.
By the mid-19th century, barging on the Kennebec was abandoned in favor of rail, and not long thereafter, the mills powered by the dam were closed. By the end of the 20th century, much of the pollution along the river had been cleaned up thanks to the requirements of the Clean Water Act, but the Edwards Dam endured as a reminder of the region’s industrial past. Generating a modest 3.5 megawatts of electricity annually, the Edwards Dam contributed less than one-tenth of one percent of Maine’spower supply and had been licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) with virtually no requirements for environmental protection.
With the dam’s license to operate set to expire in 1993, four environmental groups—American Rivers, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, and Trout Unlimited and its Kennebec Valley Chapter—intervened, along with state and federal resource agencies, to advocate the removal of the dam. Two earlier developments gave these advocates reason to hope.
First, in the early 1980s, the state of Maine had adopted a comprehensive plan for the lower Kennebec River. This plan established the goal of restoring several species of migratory fish to the lower Kennebec and specifically called for removing the Edwards Dam.
Second, in 1986, Congress amended the law governing FERC’s licensing of hydropower dams by requiring “equal consideration” of power and non-power values such as fish and wildlife and recreation. Coupled with its obligation to license projects “consistent with comprehensive plans,” this change in law opened the way for a new type of environmental advocacy focused on the restoration of America's rivers.
After almost a decade of deliberation, on Nov. 25, 1997, FERC ordered the removal of the Edwards Dam. A subsequent settlement was reached to avoid a protracted court battle. Finally, on July 1, 1999, the dam was taken down. As a backhoe breached the dam, the water from the reservoir started to flow.
Within hours of the dam’s removal, I participated in the first descent of the newly free-flowing Kennebec River, over riffles and past islands that had not been seen since the days of Thoreau and Hawthorne. Within just a few weeks, vegetation was reappearing along the riverbanks, allaying fears that the drawdown of the reservoir would leave a muddy, unsightly mess.
A decade later, more than two million alewives returned to the Kennebec, the largest migration of its kind on the eastern seaboard. The entire web of life, from eagles to osprey to black bears, have benefited from the free-flowing river. Water quality classifications have been upgraded, and mayflies and stoneflies, rarely seen in samples before the removal of Edwards, have dramatically increased in number.
The removal of the Edwards Dam has been the keystone of Augusta’s efforts to revitalize its downtown. The 17-acre (7-hectare) riverfront parcel occupied by the former textile mill and dam has become a popular parkthat features a summer carnival, a weekly farmers' market, a canoe and kayak launch, and a wooded riverfront nature trail.
“The breaching of the dam is leading to so many wonderful consequences for our community,” said Augusta Mayor Roger Katz. “From the Mill Park with its canoe and kayak launch and new pavilion to the looming Arsenal project, to our expected development of the old paper mill site, we are finally returning our focus to the river.”
Little did we know that the church bell that marked the end of the Edwards dam would herald a new era of river restoration. Conservationists came from Pennsylvania, California, and even Japan to see and learn from the revival of the Kennebec.
Over the past decade, more than 430 outdated dams have been removed nationwide, and the number of recorded dam removals grows each year, thanks to the work of American Rivers and its partners.
Dams will continue to play an important and valuable role in our economy and our society, but the removal of the Edwards Dam awakened us to the idea that rivers have a remarkable ability to heal themselves and that removing an outdated dam can bring a river—and a community—back to life.
For more on why this dam removal project has been a success, read National Geographic Freshwater Fellow Sandra Postel's blog post about it.
Andrew Fahlund develops, advocates for, and implements innovative policy and science tools that promote healthy rivers and healthy communities that are resilient in the face of a changing climate. He joined American Rivers in 1997 and has served on several governmental advisory groups, testified before the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives as well as numerous federal agencies, and participated in various policy forums and negotiations addressing water policy in the United States.