Changing Planet

Rivers Can Heal–When Given a Chance

The Kennebec River, which drains about one-fifth of the state of Maine, once teemed with fish. Huge numbers of Atlantic salmon, striped bass, alewife, American shad, and five other fish species migrated from the Atlantic Ocean up the Kennebec to spawn (see Maine map). One fishing boat that headed out from Augusta in 1822 reportedly caught 700 shad in a single day. But by 1867 the local shad industry had collapsed. And by the late 20th century, the Kennebec’s fish populations had dwindled to small remnants.

What happened? Pollution, for sure, played a role. But the biggest culprit was the Edwards Dam–a small stone-and-timber structure built in 1837 for hydropower generation that blocked the fish from reaching their spawning grounds. Later on fish ladders were installed to help the finned swimmers bypass the dam, but many of the fish couldn’t or wouldn’t use them.

Upon signing the landmark agreement in 1997 clearing the way for the dam’s removal, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt heralded a new day, declaring that dam owners and operators needed to demonstrate “by hard facts, not by sentiment or myth, that the continued operation of a dam is in the public interest, economically and environmentally.”

Since then, some 430 outdated dams have been removed from U.S. rivers, opening up habitat for fish and other aquatic organisms and letting rivers flow like rivers again.

And last summer, on the tenth anniversary of the Edwards Dam removal, Augusta residents and conservationists gathered to celebrate the return of astounding numbers of fish to the Kennebec.

Andrew Fahlund, senior vice president for conservation at American Rivers, was on hand that July day in 1999 to witness the rebirth of the Kennebec. American Rivers was one of a small group of organizations that fought for the dam’s removal and continues to fight for many others.

As Andrew describes in his piece for our Lessons from the Field, rivers can heal–when given a chance.

For more information:

American River’s website about the Edwards Dam.

Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature, by Sandra Postel and Brian Richter.


Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and lead water expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative.  She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”

[This post has been reformatted for Water Currents.]

Sandra Postel directs the independent Global Water Policy Project and lectures, writes, and consults on international water issues. She is also Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and serves as lead water expert for the Society's freshwater initiative. Sandra is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, the basis for a PBS documentary. Her essay "Troubled Waters" was selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing. Sandra is a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and has been named one of the "Scientific American 50" for her contributions to water policy.

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