Un-Dam It: Inside the Era of Freeing Eastern Rivers

Un-Dam It: Inside the Era of Freeing Eastern Rivers

When I first heard that the Edwards Dam on Maine’s Kennebec River was coming down, I couldn’t believe my ears. The 917-foot-long dam, built in 1837 from an early mix of concrete and timber, existed in some form or fashion for 162 years until it was demolished in 1999. Edwards Dam, along with 14,156 other New England dams built during the foundational era of hydropower, all had purposes related to our country’s development. Many gathered water for turning millstones to grind grain. Others provided power to weave cotton or card wool. Some protected low-lying towns from flooding, while another bunch stored and supplied water for growing food. In Edwards’ instance, the dam pooled water to make for easy log collection. Loggers rolled felled trees into the Kennebec River and floated them downstream to mills. Some were processed for paper while others were sawed for lumber. It’s just the way things were.

Many dams ought to have disappeared a long time ago. The advent of electricity was the hang up, and the one that kept dams in business. True, Americans had tinkered with electricity since the 1700s when Ben Franklin flew his kite with a key in a thunderstorm. But the perfection of power at the turn of the 20th century saw many dams converted to generate the first form of “green energy”—hydropower. Nevada’s Hoover Dam is perhaps the most staggering example. Hoover is a whopping 1,244 feet long and 726 feet tall. It took five years and $49 million ($664 million in 2019 dollars) to build. Construction claimed 96 lives. Dams in the Tennessee Valley Authority and Columbia Basin served similar purposes. Back in Olde New England, Edwards became one of them.

But time has marched on. Solar power, wind turbines, and other methods are now effective ways to generate power. Many dams, Edwards included, are now obsolete. Their time in the spotlight is over, and the current mantra is a kinder, gentler, eco-friendly focus. Just as the pollution of the first half of the century gave way to tremendous, national environmental clean ups and large-scale legislation in the 1970s, the current push is to resurrect bottled-up rivers and streams. And just as the Berlin Wall ultimately came down, so too would the Edwards Dam. Western dam removal projects on rivers such as the Elwha, Klamath, and White Salmon have gotten more attention, but a significant push to remove Eastern dams has also been underway for some time.

I always imagined dam removal would involve a John Wick-amount of explosives set river-wide. I figured a mushroom cloud would ensue, followed by concrete and wood debris falling like hail from the sky. That wasn’t the case. When Edwards Dam was breeched on July 1, 1999, the only explosions came from popped champagne bottles. A simple excavator’s back hoe broke just enough space in the dam to allow the river to run. When the water table dropped to its normal level, the remaining structure was removed. It’s hard to believe that event happened two decades ago.

These days, dam removal is as common as sunburn, and anglers have a love/hate relationship with these projects. In many people’s minds, dams close waterways to anadromous species. These fish, born in sweet water that grow to maturity in the salt, ultimately return to spawn in their natal rivers. For centuries, dams have blocked their passage to historic spawning grounds, resulting in imperiled or extinct fish stocks. To improve fish numbers and restore river health, some dams must come down. Many species benefit when that happens: striped bass, sea trout, brown trout, brook trout, herring, American shad, hickory shad, alewives, Atlantic salmon.

But which came first, over-fishing or dams? They occurred concurrently. Take the beleaguered Atlantic salmon. At one point in time, Atlantic salmon were so American that they were the common meal at Fourth of July celebrations. The salmon’s annual migration from the sea of their adulthood to spawn in the rivers of their birth started just prior to Independence Day. They were easy to net, and fillets were served with the first seasonal vegetables ripe enough to harvest, like peas. Now we eat hotdogs and baked beans.

For crying out loud, Atlantic salmon were the fish of presidents! Historically, the first salmon caught in Maine’s Penobscot River was dispatched and delivered to the White House. Restoration efforts to repopulate the Merrimack River, the Connecticut River, and many others with hatchery-reared fish were multi-million dollar programs that spanned decades… and ultimately did not produce measurable returns. Part of the reason was that they raised the anadromous species the same way as trout, and when introduced to rivers, the smolt did not survive. Several years ago, Maine’s Downeast Salmon Federation launched their innovative Peter Gray Parr Project that is based on the late Peter Gray’s successful efforts to restore salmon stocks to England’s River Tyne. In 2019, they counted a record 61 spawning redds, the highest number in decades, which shows that their scientifically based program is gaining traction. Still, the last president to receive a Maine-caught Atlantic salmon was George H.W. Bush in 1992, over a quarter of a century ago.

Some non-game species, as mundane as they may seem, are an important part of dam removals intended to create a healthy ecosystem. Except for a striped bass beach jockey slinging snakes at night, no one really gives a rip about the American eel. No one really cares about Atlantic and short-nosed sturgeon. James Bond thumbs his nose at their roe in favor of Beluga caviar. Those species aren’t sexy, even though dams have left their populations equally shaken and stirred.

Catch and release has assuaged some of the over-fishing issues. But ask fly fishers who ply the trout-rich waters of Connecticut’s Farmington River if they want the Goodwin Dam at Hogback Reservoir to be removed. They’ll probably say hell no! It’s a bottom-release tailwater that has transformed an average fishery into one of the best trout streams in New England. Water flows are consistently perfect, as are temperatures and diverse aquatic insect hatches. The Farmington has been such a success story that in 1986, President Ronald Reagan added the river to the National Wild and Scenic list. That means it’s forever protected. As such, numerous area businesses have sprouted up, all in support of increased travel and tourism. Hotels, inns, restaurants, guide services, and a few fly and tackle shops cater to folks from away. No, that dam won’t be taken down any time soon.

In New England, the oldest developed part of the United States, finding dams to remove isn’t always easy. Even with all of our technology, GPS, and satellite mapping imagery, it’s challenging to know exactly how many dams there really are in New England. Many dams that block waterways were built privately. They were small yet functional, and usually designed to prohibit heavy spring runoff from flooding fields and villages. Over time, some of these dams were forgotten. Others were covered with a century’s worth of deadfall and leaf litter.  Finding them is critical to properly opening up waterways.

The Army Corps of Engineers maintains a National Inventory of Dams. Their list had been considered a reliable resource, but recently, new information shows that it’s incomplete. While the NID lists 4,075 dams in the six-state New England region, an investigation by Dartmouth University’s Watershed Resilience program discovered quite a few more. Dartmouth’s final tally? Fourteen thousand, one hundred and fifty-seven—over 10,000 more dams than the NID covers. Identifying dams is the first step in taking them down, and it’s happening slowly if not surely. Between 1990 and 2013, 127 dams were removed (about a dozen per year). From 2014 to 2018, 131 New England dams were removed (about 33 per year). That’s just a start.

State Number of Dams (NID) # of Dams Overall # of Dams Removed
CT 734 3624 35
ME 611 760 36
MA 1490 3002 45
NH 641 5076 63
RI 236 668 6
VT 363 1027 73
Total 4075 14157 258

Table courtesy of Dartmouth University.

New Hampshire leads the region in number of dams, but there are two staggering figures. The first is that 77% of the dams are privately owned. Problems can arise if they aren’t properly maintained, and they can cause public issues. One such example occurred in 1996 when the privately-owned Meadow Pond Dam in Alton, NH, failed. The ensuing floods caused by the breach caused nearly $8 million in property damage and one fatality. But the second issue is a touchy subject. Many of the dams create recreational areas that have become some of the New Hampshire’s most visited locations. These areas are popular for fishing, camping, boating, and other outdoor activities. Like with Goodwin Dam in Connecticut, should those come down in favor of improved waterways and ecosystems?

The recent efforts focus more on dams that were once essential to commerce but are no longer relevant. Connecticut dams, for instance, supplied power for an expansive textile and manufacturing industry. After New Haven’s Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin that separated seed from fiber, cotton from Southern plantations arrived in New England to be turned into fabric. These days, most of our fabrics currently come from overseas, so there is no need for dams in the textile industry because those plants no longer exist. Connecticut River Valley firearms companies are legendary, right? Colt, Parker, Marlin, Mossberg, Winchester. Further north in Massachusetts are Savage and Smith & Wesson. Powerful names that are all in my gun cabinet. If they are still in business, where are they getting their electricity? Not from centuries-old dams.

Removing dams one at a time is to the new millennium as building them one at a time was to the Industrial Revolution. But there is more than just taking them down. The real work is the ensuing clean up. It takes time, it takes a lot of work, and a lot of money. Just ask Erika Johnson, a postdoctoral researcher in applied ocean physics at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Johnson is working on a $3.5 million river restoration project in the Coonamessett River bog system. Decay of the surrounding landscape began in the 1600s when the Coonamessett River was dammed to create waterpower for grist mills that carded wool and ground Pilgrim corn. The loss of surrounding hardwoods and their deep root systems caused bank destabilization, and when combined with overfishing, the river became a barren, silty mess. It took years of study to arrive at the ultimate goal of creating a healthy river estuary to encourage breeding of sea-run brook trout and the beleaguered river herring among other anadromous fish.

“Dam removals create healthy ecosystems for both fish, wildlife, and the environment as a whole,” Johnson said.  “But removing a dam is a process, a lengthy one at that. Each situation is unique, and the political, procedural, scientifically environmental, and financial requirements can create a complicated mix. Dam removal isn’t easy, but they are entirely worth the effort.”

It’s been 20 years since Edwards Dam came down. In 20 years it’ll be interesting to see how many more are gone. It’ll take a lot of time and money, but in the end will it be worth it? I suppose it depends on who you ask, and where.

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