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Setting rivers free: As dams are torn down, nature is quickly recovering

With the removal of many dams, conservationists are seeing the return of the natural bounty that fed Native Americans and astonished European settlers.

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    Maine Department of Marine Resources biologist Nate Gray is pictured sitting below Benton Falls Dam, in Maine.
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“Look underneath you,” commands Nate Gray, a burly biologist for the state of Maine. He reaches down to the grate floor of a steel cage perched on a dam straddling the Sebasticook River, and pulls back a board revealing the roiling river 30 feet below. “All you see is fish.” 

Below, undulating in swift current, are the silver backs of thousands of small, sleek river herrings called alewives.

Six years ago, there were no alewives here. This summer, Mr. Gray expects 3 million. The fish arrive here, awaiting a lift over the 27-foot high hydroelectric dam in a $1 million hydraulic fish elevator, because two dams downstream have been demolished. The first “class” of alewives that hatched in lakes upstream after the dam removals are now returning by the millions after four years at sea, eager to spawn. “What you are looking at is a change in the mind-set of humanity toward what wealth is,” says Gray.

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The demolition of the two downstream dams at Winslow and Augusta, opening a 63-mile run to the sea from Benton Falls, is part of a profound shift of priorities in the United States. Dams, celebrated as a triumph of modern engineering and symbol of man’s call to redesign nature, are gradually being torn down. Some are safety hazards; others are too costly to maintain. But the catalyst for most of the demolition is to restore rivers to a wild state. 

Nearly 900 dams, erected to power the country’s machinery, store water, irrigate fields, or generate hydroelectric power, have come down in the past 25 years. Each year, about 50 or 60 more are removed, ranging from almost-forgotten rubble obstructions to towering concrete structures. As dams come down, conservationists say they are surprised at how quickly nature recovers. River-watchers are starting to record signs of the natural bounty that fed native Americans and astonished the first European settlers.

“We are beginning to recognize the value of what we lost,” says Laura Rose Day, who has worked on Maine river restoration for 16 years. “People think dam removals are just about fish. Then they say, ‘Oh, I have more eagles now,’ and ‘Oh, my water quality is better,’ and ‘Oh, I do like the running river.’ ”

Mike Joslyn is one of those surprised. He works for Essex Hydro at Benton Falls and helps maintain the fish elevator. The alewives surge into a 6-by-6-foot cage that lifts from the lower river every eight minutes. Thirty feet higher, its doors open, and the alewives flash forward, darting through plastic tubing, where each is electronically counted, and then out into the upper reach of the river to continue their migratory dash. Standing beside the mechanism, Mr. Joslyn checks his clipboard. The previous day, he lifted 95,200 river herrings.

When he started operating the fish lift, Joslyn admits he thought it was a silly task. Then he went fishing below the dam and found striped bass, another traveler now patrolling the freed river for a meal of alewife. He fought a 39-inch striper. 

“Now my attitude is completely changed,” he says. “The alewife are important to the habitat.” 

New England and the Great Lakes region, peppered with dams built for mills and factories more than a century ago, have taken down the most dams, according to American Rivers, a nonprofit advocating river restoration. California and the Pacific Northwest rank next.

The largest dam destroyed so far was the 108-foot-high Elwha Dam in Washington, removed in 2011 after a bitter, two-decade battle that pitted native Americans and environmentalists against conservative politicians who balked at the idea and the cost. The dismantling of the 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam, eight miles behind it, is almost finished, and will unlock 70 miles of the Elwha River to Pacific salmon. The Embrey Dam removal on the Rappahannock River in Virginia may have been the most spectacular: Engineers used 600 pounds of explosives to punch a hole in the dam, allowing the river to drain to the Chesapeake Bay. 

The poster fish for dam removals is the wild salmon, beleaguered but still numerous in the West and nearly gone in the East. They migrate from the sea to find a familiar old river, and – by smell, scientists theorize – work upriver to the farthest headwaters to spawn. River herring, shad, sturgeon, and eel do the same on the East Coast. On the West Coast, the greatest migration is of Pacific salmon and steelhead trout.

All are stymied in that journey when they confront a dam. “Fish ladders” – typically a series of successively higher pools – are imperfect. “They will pass from zero to maybe 60 to 70 percent of the fish,” says Josh Royte, a biologist who works for The Nature Conservancy in Maine. Hydraulic elevators are used in some places; in other places, fish are netted and trucked around a dam. 

• • •

But the decision to tear down a dam is not always about fish; it often involves money and safety. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave dam safety a “D” in its 2013 “report card” on infrastructure, and noted more than 2,000 “high hazard” dams are structurally deficient. “The nation’s dams are aging and the number of high-hazard dams is on the rise,” the group warned.

It is a real threat. In 1972, coal sludge dams on Buffalo Creek in West Virginia burst, killing 123 people. The Canyon Lake Dam in South Dakota broke the same year, killing 238. In 1976, the collapse of the Teton Dam in Idaho killed 11 people. In 1977 a Georgia dam failed, unleashing a flood onto a Bible college and killing 39 people; a dam collapse in Pennsylvania that year killed 40.

Each disaster is an echo of the worst dam tragedy in this country. After pounding rains in 1889, a dam built for wealthy fishermen high above Johnstown, Pa., was breached, sending a 60-foot wall of water crashing over the towns below, killing 2,209 people. 

Those tragedies put pressure on owners of dams, who are responsible for the upkeep and could be liable for the failure of a dam. Robert Douglas, the conservation manager in Andover, Mass., tracked down a lawn dye company still listed as the owner of an 8-foot-high dam on the Shawsheen River built by a textile baron in the 1920s because he liked the sound of falling water. It had remained, even though it blocked fish and periodically helped flood the downtown. 

“They were surprised when we called them a few years ago and said they were the owner of a 100-year-old dam,” Mr. Douglas recalls with a chuckle. The company “was delighted” to give the dam up for removal rather than pay to repair it, he says. Often, removal advocates find dam owners eager to dismantle dams when they are shown the bill for safety updates and maintenance.

• • •

Dams sprouted in the US as the population grew – first to divert water for crops and storage for dry spells, and then for flood control and small manufacturing. Owners of New England gunpowder, grist, and textile mills found dams could increase the power of paddle wheels connected by pulleys to their machines. Streams were dammed by the thousands, and people upstream and down protested, sued, and sometimes rioted when their access to fish or a riverway was blocked. But they usually lost, victims of a perception that putting nature to work was man’s destiny. 

In the West, the vast and dry expanses cut by mighty rivers led to the era of big dams. The Colorado and Columbia rivers seemed a challenge, mighty but “wasted” flows to be harnessed for man. In 1920, Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled the Columbia River Gorge while campaigning for the vice presidency. “As we were coming down the river today,” he remarked, “I could not help thinking, as everyone does, of all that water running unchecked down to the sea.”

By the time Roosevelt became president in 1933, construction of the Hoover Dam – then the biggest hydroelectric dam ever built, rising 726 feet in 3 million cubic yards of concrete – was under way. Roosevelt saw huge dams – what his cousin Teddy Roosevelt, a Harvard-trained naturalist, had praised as “great storage works” – as a way to put starving men to work in the Depression, and to power the development of “practically unused” stretches of America. 

In a 35-year spurt, until 1965, the massive structures grew: the Grand Coulee Dam and Bonneville Dam and locks on the Columbia River, the Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River, the Shasta Dam on the Sacramento, the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado, and others. The Tennessee Valley Authority diced up the mighty Tennessee River with dams for power. The Army Corps of Engineers harnessed the Ohio and Mississippi, creating dams and locks to keep the rivers placid and the ships moving.

The projects were lionized in movie reels, the workers hailed as the brave troops in a grand battle to subdue nature. The resulting hydroelectricity fueled the transformation of the US to an industrial power in World War II. By the 1960s, according to Army Corps history, the US was the second most dammed country in the world. It now lists approximately 80,000 dams higher than six feet, and one estimate puts the number of smaller dams at more than 2 million.

“We have been building, on average, one large dam a day, every day since the Declaration of Independence,” remarked Bruce Babbitt, then secretary of the interior, in 1998. 

• • •

The modern environmental movement that coalesced in the late 1960s and early ’70s – sparked by Rachel Carson and infused with the rebellion of the times – questioned dams and began to slow their pace. About a dozen were removed annually in the ’80s, but many advocates see the Edwards Dam on Maine’s Kennebec River as their symbolic starting gun. In 1999, the hulking 917-foot-long, 24-foot-high hydroelectric dam was demolished on orders of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which ruled that it impeded fish. It was the first time river restoration won priority over electricity. Like the hydroelectric dam removals that followed, the Edwards Dam power plant was long outdated. Run by three workers, it produced only 3.5 megawatts. 

Nature writer John McPhee watched the destruction. “The thundering water turned white and the slicks were cordovan glass,” Mr. McPhee wrote in his book on shad, “The Founding Fish.” “The Kennebec River in Augusta, after 162 years in the slammer, was walking.” 

Dams don’t stop just fish. The flow of sediment and nutrients, increasingly understood as important to the health of the river and land downstream, is blocked. Ponds behind dams are sluggish, deep, and warm, inhospitable for species that like clear, fast, and cool. Salmon are replaced by bass. Oxygen levels in the water drop. Sediments pile up and toxins accumulate. Algae and weeds take over. Birds of prey go elsewhere. 

“Our goal is to give the river back as much self-control as possible,” says Alison Bowden, an ecologist who works with The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts. She estimates the streams in that state are plugged with 3,000 dams. “Do we really think we can go back to the 1600s? No. But we want to do as much as we can to return a river to a self-sustaining process.” 

“As a general rule, we don’t consider removing dams that were built for the purpose of flood control,” says Ms. Bowden. But those are few; dams that hold back reservoirs of water, or regulate the passing flow of rivers for hydroelectric production, are not built for flood control. “The general perception among the public is that dams provide flood control, but most don’t. The old mill dams, for example, couldn’t hold back water if you wanted them to.” The majority of dams targeted for removal no longer serve a purpose at all, she says.

Not all dam removals have been a success. When the Fort Edward Dam on the Hudson River north of Albany, N.Y., was removed in 1973, tons of pent-up soil with highly toxic PCBs were released downstream, an acute health hazard and cleanup problem, still, 41 years later. And in the West, as drought sucks water levels in reservoirs to record lows, some state lawmakers now are clamoring to build more dams. “It is crucial that we create more storage,” says California State Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, a Democrat who wants four new reservoirs at a cost of $6.2 billion. 

California congressmen also are asking the federal government to enlarge two existing dams and build two new ones. Rep. Richard “Doc” Hastings (R) of Washington, who thinks salmon have too much leverage, introduced a bill in 2012 to stop studying the removal of a hydroelectric dam or spilling water for salmon without congressional approval. The bill went nowhere, but he told a legislative hearing he wanted to “take back the offensive on saving dams.”

And Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who promotes hydropower, said, “I think it’s irresponsible for our state or our country to be taking out hydro dams. In fact, we ought to be putting more in,” he said in boycotting the ceremony of a dam removal on the Penobscot River in 2012. 

• • •

Andrew Goode contends the only dams that have been removed are old; no longer needed for mills, irrigation, or reservoirs; or produce little power. He works for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, a Canadian-headquartered nonprofit trying to save the last remnants of wild Atlantic salmon in North American rivers. Most of those rivers are in Canada; the Penobscot River in Maine is the southernmost wild salmon habitat. 

Mr. Goode spends more time trying to bring back river herring than salmon. The US government spent 45 years and more than $25 million trying to restore Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut and other New England rivers, and failed. 

“You have a lot of people around here who saw the federal government spend a whole lot of money on one species – the salmon – without much success,” he says. “We are trying to fix the problem from the ground up, looking at the whole river.”

So he picks his battles carefully, Goode explains while inspecting a fish ladder that loops around a fieldstone dam built in the 1700s on Blackman Stream, a swift tributary to the Penobscot. The dam powered a sawmill that is now a museum run by period-costumed actors, a popular destination for school trips. So taking down the dam is “a nonstarter,” he says.

When two dam removals downstream opened the lower Penobscot River in 2009, the federation built 17 climbing pools to help fish clear this dam. The eight-inch-long alewives flash as they wiggle over each step. Goode nets one and shows a group of excited schoolchildren.

In 2010, conservation officials released 7,000 alewives in a pond upstream. Four years later, exactly on cue, “like magic, we have thousands and thousands of fish return.” Goode expects a half-million alewives will return to this one narrow stream.

“Alewife are the keystone species of the Maine rivers,” he explains. If he can help bring back the alewife and the shad and other species, salmon will have a better chance, he believes. The ecosystem will be healthier, the water cleaner with more nutrients, and salmon will have more cover from predators.

Maine’s Penobscot River and its veins of streams and brooks historically saw massive migrations of salmon, shad, herring, sturgeon, striped bass, eel, and lamprey. During salmon runs, the riverbanks would be so packed that anglers took turns at the best spots, say old-timers who fished here.

Overfished at sea and blocked from spawning grounds, Atlantic salmon were declared endangered in the Penobscot in 2009. Biologists estimate fewer than a half of 1 percent of the historic population remains.

• • •

Hachey’s Rod and Fly Shop sits on a hill above where the Veazie Dam stood just north of Bangor until it was removed from the Penobscot last year. Gayland Hachey, a fisherman for seven decades, is surrounded in his small shop by spools of brilliant thread and a rainbow of feathers for tying flies. He says he doesn’t expect to see big salmon runs again: “Not in my lifetime.” 

Even with two dams on the river gone, salmon must surmount three more dams to get to spawning grounds in the farthest reaches of the tributaries.

“Show me a dam on a river, and I’ll show you a river without Atlantic salmon,” Mr. Hachey says. Under his cash register tray, he keeps “the Green Gremlin,” a fly he made with green thread and a mallard’s feather. It has a bent hook from the 10-1/2-pound Atlantic salmon he caught in 2007, the first fish of the season, a prize fiercely contested among the members of the Veazie Salmon Club. And, Hachey figures, it was one of the few remaining stragglers that returned to the Penobscot. Now, he says, members of the club compete for cribbage honors.

The Penobscot runs wide and fast where the Veazie Dam stood, shushing at the rocks that slow its sprint to the Gulf of Maine. The dam’s destruction exposed ancient rapids, and white froth snaps at the air. 

Removal of the Veazie and Great Works dams came because Bangor Hydro proposed a massive new dam on the river in 1991. “People said, ‘enough,’ ” recalled Ms. Rose Day. “They were fed up. They had been through a significant cleanup of the river, and they saw what it could be.”

Groups seeking to restore the river cooperated to create the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, which Rose Day directs, and raised $25 million to buy three dams. Two have been removed; the third was outfitted with a side channel of modern fish steps. 

The removals are working for alewives. Chances for Atlantic salmon, still blocked from the farthest headwaters and in danger at sea, are “not even 50-50,” Goode admits. “But this is our last, best chance to save the Atlantic salmon in the United States.”

Some think that is chasing a lost era. In his book “Running Silver,” John Waldman describes that loss: “No longer did family members fish the river for food and for market; no longer were these fish on the dinner table; no longer did residents hold festivals celebrating their return; no longer did they matter – and so they were forgotten.”

The Penobscot native American tribe has not forgotten. They fished the river for 10,000 years. Many of its 2,200 members live on islands in the river. In 1976, they gained federal recognition and fishing rights.

Mostly, those rights have been “words on paper,” with no fish to claim, says John Banks, the tribe’s natural resources director. But he is hopeful. “It took a couple of hundred years to put the river in a bad condition,” he says. 

“It will take a few more years to bring it back. We are seeing ecological improvement. We’ve seen more eagles come back. Ospreys. The river is coming back to life.”

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