by Rebecca R. Wodder, American Rivers
A River on Every Page
In July 1837, Nathaniel Hawthorne stood on the bank of Maine´s Kennebec River during the construction of the Edwards Dam. He wrote, "The dam is perhaps half-finished.... While looking at the rushing and rippling stream, I saw a great fish, some six feet long and thick in proportion suddenly emerge at whole length, turn a somerset, and then vanish again beneath the water. It was of a glistening, yellowish brown, with its fins all spread and looking very strange and startling, darting so life-like from the black water, throwing itself fully into the bright sunshine, and then lost to sight and to pursuit."
The rock-and-timber Edwards Dam on Maine's
Kennebec River was removed in summer 1999.
Photo courtesy of National Wildlife Federation.
The magnificent creature witnessed by Hawthorne was a sturgeon. In his day, the Kennebec River teemed with these fish, as well as Atlantic salmon, striped bass, alewives, blueback herring, American shad, and brook trout. The thriving fishery of the free-flowing Kennebec fed the minds of writers like Hawthorne and the mouths of surrounding villages and towns.
Edwards Dam was completed on the Kennebec in 1838 to supply water to sawmills. When the dam was modified in 1913 to produce electricity, it helped boost the region's industrial growth. But along with the benefits of the dam came significant costs. The river was crippled. Fish that traveled from the ocean upriver to spawn could not get past the 25-foot high rock and timber barrier. With important upstream habitat off limits, fish populations plummeted.
During this time, similar stories were unfolding on many other rivers across the United States. From the late-1800s to the mid-1900s, America went on a dam-building binge. We built dams and harnessed our rivers for a wide variety of reasons: to divert water for irrigation, to produce hydroelectric power, to store water, to prevent floods. For a long time, people saw dams as symbols of progress, representing man´s triumph over nature. We focused on the benefits provided by dams and did not acknowledge the damage they caused to rivers, wildlife, and human communities.
Dams not only block fish migration--they also change river flows, degrade water quality, break up natural habitat, and limit recreation. Today, there are approximately 75,000 dams greater than five feet tall on rivers throughout the United States. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt put the number in perspective when he said, "That means we have been building, on average, one large dam a day, every single day, since the Declaration of Independence."
This year, however, marks the beginning of a new era. American Rivers is leading the effort to remove environmentally harmful, unsafe, and abandoned dams to restore the health of rivers across the country. When the environmental costs of a dam outweigh its economic benefits, the dam simply does not belong in the river any longer. Once considered radical, dam removal is now considered a reasonable and viable option for restoring rivers.
Dams are not monuments--they do not need to be permanent fixtures on the riverscape. On North Carolina´s Neuse River, California´s Butte Creek, and Vermont´s Clyde, dams have been removed and the waters are flowing freely once again. And this summer, we will see the rebirth of another river--the Kennebec.
Native fish, and the anglers who pursue them, expect to benefit
considerably from the removal of Maine´s Edwards Dam, in the background.
Photo by Andy Molloy, courtesy of Kennebec Journal - Morning Sentinal Online.
After working for over a decade, American Rivers and our partners in the Kennebec Coalition achieved a momentous agreement with the federal government to remove the Edwards Dam. Not only has the dam damaged the Kennebec for over 160 years, it also produced only a minimal amount of power. This is the first time in history that the federal government has ordered an operating hydropower dam to be dismantled against the wishes of the dam owner in order to restore a river and save endangered fish.
But that´s not all. The Edwards decision also means that our government finally recognizes that a healthy, free-flowing river can be more valuable than the electric power and private profit it produces. Biologists expect fish populations to flourish in the restored Kennebec River. Paddlers and anglers look forward to improved recreation opportunities.
Healthy, dynamic rivers are the lifeblood of our country. The late journalist and American Rivers board member Charles Kuralt once said, "America is a great story and there is a river on every page of it."
Just as the Kennebec touched Hawthorne, other rivers across the country have inspired countless writers and artists. By removing the Edwards Dam and other dams that don´t make sense, we will help ensure that our rivers--and our stories--keep on flowing.
|Rebecca R. Wodder is the president of American Rivers, the nation's leading river conservation organization. American Rivers has worked to protect and restore rivers for more than 25 years. To learn more, visit www.amrivers.org.