For 160 years it has been off-limits: 17 miles of prime fish-spawning habitat on Maine's Kennebec River. Blocked since 1837 by the Edwards Dam, once abundant populations of migratory fish - sturgeon, bass, salmon, and more - have dwindled, forced to spawn in marginal areas below the 917-foot-long barrier.
But that could soon change. In an unprecedented action, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in November ordered that the Edwards Dam in the city of Augusta be decommissioned and removed - at the owner's expense.
Not only is this the first time that the agency, which licenses about 2,000 dams in the United States, has made such an order; it is also the only case in which the agency has refused to relicense an operating hydroelectric dam.
While environmentalists here applaud the decision as a boost to dwindling fish populations, the hydropower industry sees it as a dangerous precedent. It's a decision with repercussions well beyond Maine waterways, as hundreds of FERC dams around the country come up for license renewal.
To a coalition of Maine and US environmental groups, it marks a victorious milestone in a 10-year battle to close the dam and restore this section of the Kennebec River to its natural state.
To at least nine species of migratory fish, it could mean renewed access to the longest stretch of their spawning habitat north of the Hudson River.
"This is a big win for Maine's environment and economy," says Peter Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, one of four organizations in the Kennebec Coalition that has pushed this case.
Biologists, Mr. Didisheim says, predict that depressed populations of fish - including the endangered shortnose sturgeon and rare wild Atlantic salmon - will "soar" once the dam is gone. Maine's economy is expected to benefit from increased sport fishing and river recreation, he adds.
The dam removal could have effects well beyond Maine waterways. Calling it a "win for river restoration efforts across the country," Margaret Bowman, director of hydropower programs for the Washington-based American Rivers conservation group, says the decision is a sign that the government is looking differently at dams.
Instead of viewing them as "permanent structures on the landscape," she says, it is acknowledging that dams have a finite life cycle and could be doing more harm than good. This is significant now as hundreds of FERC dams are coming due for renewal of their 30- to 50-year licenses.
As Ms. Bowman points out, many dams - both FERC and otherwise - have already been shut down in other states by choice of the owner. Several more have been targeted for the same fate, she says.
The FERC-licensed Condit Dam, for example, is the only such barrier on the White Salmon River in Washington State, and blocks salmon and steelhead from migrating.
According to Bowman, it could be the next in line for removal.
But while groups such as American Rivers are applauding this trend, the hydropower industry is not. Mark Isaacson of Edwards Manufacturing Co. that owns the Edwards Dam, says his company has appealed the recent order; if that isn't successful, it will file suit.
Mr. Isaacson does not believe that federal law gives the agency authority to order a dam removed, nor does he believe the agency can require the owner to pay for its removal (estimated to cost $2.7 million).
Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association in Washington, D.C., agrees. She says her organization will support Edwards Manufacturing in appealing this case. Their main concern, she says, is not who will pay for the dam's dismantling, but the ramifications the agency's order has for the hydropower industry overall.
Citing the recent US targets set in Kyoto, Japan, for lowering greenhouse gases, Ms. Church Ciocci says now is the time to be promoting, not cutting back on, renewable energy sources such as hydropower. Giving the government authority to order even one dam's demise, she says, sets a dangerous precedent.
But the federal agency - which has considered whether to renew the Edward's license since it expired in 1993 - sees it differently.
In 1994, the commission determined that it does have the authority to deny new licenses to hydroelectric projects when existing licenses expire. In 1986, Congress passed legislation requiring the agency to balance power generation and environmental protection when considering whether to renew licenses.
As for the precedent the Edwards decision sets, commission chairman James Hoecker says that it is a unique case; overall, hydropower "will remain a valuable part of the nation's energy mix, especially in light of its implication for clean air," he says.
Special facts support the Edwards dam removal, he says: The power it generates (3.5 megawatts, 0.1 percent of Maine's total use) can easily be replaced by other existing resources; the benefits to nine species of fish (the commission had previously considered requiring the owners to install a $10 million fish way) outweigh the dam's economic benefits; and there would be economic benefits of increased recreational boating and sport fishing.
Mr. Hoecker also cites the "overwhelming consensus of state and federal authorities," who argued for dam removal - which included Maine's Gov. Angus King and Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, as well as US Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
To Didisheim, this support was a key factor in the government's decision. In his view, the agency isn't likely to order dams in other states removed without a similar level of public support. And, he says, despite the government's order, it may well be a while until the Edwards Dam is actually gone.
The federal agency has given the owners one year to develop a removal plan; after that it could be taken out in 1999. But that is the best-case scenario. The length and outcome of the appeals process will determine if and when the fish get their migratory green light.