With a dam's demise, hope for reviving rivers

Demolition begins of dam in Maine, signaling rise of environmental

In the middle of Maine's Kennebec River, a backhoe bites mouthfuls of earth, chewing through gravel and 160 years of history.

As the Edwards Dam crumbles, water rushes freely through this stretch of river for the first time since before the Civil War - christening a new era for both the Kennebec and river-restoration efforts across the United States.

For many, the dismantling of this particular dam in Maine's capital city signifies the end of an era in America. After a century of using its engineering prowess to harness the forces of nature for economic progress, the country has now turned to assess the environmental cost - and is starting to tear down dams deemed no longer vital to national prosperity.

"The significance of the removal goes beyond the timber and concrete being taken out," says Margaret Bowman of American Rivers in Washington, who sees Edwards as a model for other communities examining the worth of aging dams. "Ten years ago, the thought of removing a hydroelectric dam was unthinkable," she says. "We don't expect the next one to take as long."

It's the idea of a "next one" that both cheers environmentalists and worries some in the hydropower industry. Edwards, at 917 feet long, is the largest dam ever to be removed, its future sealed in 1997 when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission took the unprecedented action of refusing to relicense it.

With 2,600 hydropower dams under FERC auspices, some observers see real potential for unleashing hundreds of miles of American rivers from their concrete collars, restoring natural flows and reviving fisheries. Indeed, many see a stretch of Maine's Kennebec, upstream of the dam to Winslow, as a laboratory for river restoration.

But Ms. Bowman and others emphasize that decisions about tearing down dams require a careful weighing of environmental and economic costs, and that other cases may not be as clear-cut as Edwards.

"There's a balancing that needs to go on," says Steve Brooke, coordinator of the Kennebec Coalition, which fought for 10 years to get the dam removed. In the end, environmental groups, fishing groups, and officials right up to Gov. Angus King banded together to restore 17 miles of river.

On Thursday, several hundred Augusta residents gathered in a former paper-mill parking lot to watch the backhoe make history. Folk singers warbled river songs, local and national officials had their say, and, as church bells pealed the news, the first sign of moisture seeped through the Edwards.

"This is the beginning of something that will affect the entire nation," said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. "The message you are sending is of extraordinary importance.... It's a manifestation of who we are: neighbors living in a democracy," he added, referring to the varied groups that came together for the $2.5 million demolition.

The decision to remove the dam came down to Yankee practicality, experts say.

The mills it had powered had closed, and the dam was producing less than one-tenth of 1 percent of Maine's electricity. FERC ruled that the energy benefits were outweighed by the damage the dam caused by hindering 10 species of fish - including sturgeon, Atlantic salmon, and striped bass - from reaching ancestral spawning grounds.

The result of the demolition could be one of the most important fisheries on the East Coast, advocates say.

But it will take a number of years for fish to make a full comeback. "If we can do this here, the possibility of restoring other rivers in other places, I think, is going to inspire other people," says Brownie Carson, head of the National Resources Council of Maine.

Like hundreds of dams that powered New England's Industrial Revolution, Edwards was built in 1837 to run the mills that were Augusta's primary employer. Before that, the Kennebec served as a center of trade, complete with a fishery so rich "a person could fill 50,000 barrels in a day, if he could endure the labor," a French priest wrote in 1723.

"[The river] was the thread of life for the city," says Kelly Gray of the Augusta City Planner's Office.

Now advocates hope the dam's removal will also provide economic benefits to the city - in the form of increased tourism and recreation dollars from sport fishermen, and perhaps, in a revitalization of the capital.

"We hope it will give people an opportunity to reorient their city to something that's a magnificent resource that's always been here but hasn't always been an asset," says Mr. Carson. He and others note that almost all of Augusta's buildings face away from the river. The reason is simple, he says: "It used to be a stinking, open sewer." Before the Clean Water Act of 1972, the river was so polluted that it turned buildings black and literally peeled the paint off the walls.

Today, the fish have returned - along with bald eagles and ospreys - and a few city workers have taken to fishing for stripers during their lunch breaks.

"There aren't many state capitals where you have this sort of wildlife here in your backyard. Our city needs to turn toward it and embrace it," says Pete Didishaus, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council.

As part of the settlement leading to the dam's removal, Augusta could get up to $1 million in restoration funds. By next year, the city hopes to devise a plan that could include a riverfront park, restored historical buildings, and new recreational facilities.

BUT Mr. Gray cautions against comparisons with San Antonio and other cities that have turned waterways into centerpieces of urban renewal. Augusta's small size, about 20,000 residents, and lack of mass transportation are both obstacles to that level of revitalization.

Still, the river has wrought at least one benefit for the city: One byproduct of the agreement leading to the dam's removal has been "a new spirit of cooperation between the city and the state," Gray says. "There's been a recognition that we both have an interest in this city and that interest needs to be acted on."

The challenge is finding ways to "turn our faces to the river," as Governor King has said. "That's the rallying cry we're all operating under," Gray says.

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