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Dam Removal Begins on Maine’s Penobscot River to Revive Historic Salmon Runs

The dams will fall and the salmon will rise. That may sound like prophesy, but it’s as certain as scientific predictions get these days, particularly in matters of ecological restoration. Yesterday, demolition of the Great Works Dam began on the Penobscot River in Maine.  Another dam, the Veazie, will come down next summer.  With the...

The dams will fall and the salmon will rise.

That may sound like prophesy, but it’s as certain as scientific predictions get these days, particularly in matters of ecological restoration.

Yesterday, demolition of the Great Works Dam began on the Penobscot River in Maine.  Another dam, the Veazie, will come down next summer.  With the removal of those two dams and the construction of new fish passage structures at two other dams, salmon and ten other migratory fish species will regain access to more than 1,000 miles of river habitat.

Fish biologists are betting on a spectacular revival.  They are predicting that by 2020 the salmon populations will grow from 2,000 to 12,000.  Even more impressive, American Shad are expected to increase from a couple of thousand to more than two million.

Most importantly, the Penobscot Indian Nation will be rejoined with their relatives, the salmon.

The Gift of Salmon

“Today is a day that will be remembered as a most significant event in reuniting our long-lost fisheries resources with their historic homeland,” said Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis. “Bringing back these lost relatives continues the restoration of ancient natural cycles of creation in a river we have been connected to for thousands of years, and makes us who we are as a people.”

The Penobscot River has been the tribe’s ancestral home for more than 10,000 years, and they view the salmon as their relatives in the great web of life.  At one time they shared the river with more than 100,000 salmon.

The river’s fish have long been revered by sport and commercial fishermen as well.  Many American presidents have received the first-caught salmon of each year as a gift from river fishermen, a tradition started in 1912 with a gift to President William Howard Taft.

Sadly, President George HW Bush was the last American president to receive a gift of Penobscot salmon in 1992.  The salmon population had dwindled to less than 2,000 fish at that point.  The Penobscot salmon were finally listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2009.

For nearly two centuries, a series of dams along the Penobscot have blocked salmon and other migratory fish from moving upstream to their ancestral spawning grounds.  The fish populations began to plummet almost immediately after the first dams were built.  When Veazie Dam was constructed on the river in 1835, the Commissioners of Fisheries in Maine reported that “a great many shad and alewives lingered about the dam and died there, until the air was loaded with the stench.”

The Power of Partnership

The dam removal had its genesis in a federal dam re-licensing process overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, more popularly known by its easily pronounced acronym: FERC.  This commission regulates all private hydropower dams in the U.S., including those on the Penobscot.  FERC issues licenses to private hydro dam operators for a term ranging from 30 to 50 years.  When the term of a license is about to expire, the dam owners need to apply for re-licensing, a process that requires FERC to invite public input.

According to the Federal Power Act, FERC is supposed to give “equal consideration” to conservation and recreational uses of rivers alongside hydropower production.  FERC’s success in attaining such balance between conservation and hydropower production has been mixed at best.  A major frustration of conservation interests has been the fact that FERC typically re-licenses one dam at a time, even when multiple dams exist within the same river basin, owing to the fact that each dam might be owned by a different company and each dam’s license expires at a different time.  That makes it very difficult to address the cumulative impacts of multiple dams on the same river, and very hard to prescribe operating restrictions that provide for coordinated management of rivers as integrated natural systems.

But the Penobscot got a big break when PPL Corporation bought all of the dams in the lower Penobscot basin in 1999-2000.  PPL immediately began discussions with the Penobscot Tribe, subsequently joined by conservation groups and state and federal agencies, to consider the possibility of looking at all of the company’s dams at the same time so that hydropower production could be better balanced with fisheries restoration.

By 2003 the groups had reached a monumental agreement for the river’s future.  Under the agreement, PPL offered the Penobscot River Restoration Trust a five-year option to purchase three dams (Veazie, Great Works, and Howland). The trust was a newly formed non-profit organization represented by the Penobscot Nation and six conservation groups: American Rivers; the Atlantic Salmon Federation; Maine Audubon; Natural Resources Council of Maine; The Nature Conservancy; and Trout Unlimited.

The Trust had gained a critically important agreement from PPL, but immediately faced a huge new obstacle: raising $24 million to purchase the dams, along with tens of millions more needed for engineering studies, dam removal, and ecological monitoring.

At today’s celebration marking the beginning of the end for the lowermost two dams on the river, the Trust proudly announced that it is very close to raising the $62 million necessary to complete the project.  Half has come from the federal government, and half from private contributions.

The Balance of Power

Remarkably, the restoration of the Penobscot will not result in loss of hydropower.  The FERC relicensing of PPL’s remaining six dams in the basin allowed for PPL to increase hydropower generation at these dams, resulting in a net increase in total energy generation.  The increases in electricity generation will be achieved by rehabilitating Orono Dam on a tributary to the Penobscot, and raising reservoir levels at three other dams to enable greater hydropower potential.

Perhaps U.S. Senator Olympia Stowe of Maine said it best: “By working collaboratively to restore Atlantic salmon while simultaneously maintaining current levels of clean energy production, the Penobscot Project has established itself as a national and international model for river restoration.”

Maybe we’ve finally found a way to make our relatives happy.

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Meet the Author

Brian Richter
Brian Richter has been a global leader in water science and conservation for more than 25 years. He is the Chief Scientist for the Global Water Program of The Nature Conservancy, an international conservation organization, where he promotes sustainable water use and management with governments, corporations, and local communities. He is also the President of Sustainable Waters, a global water education organization. Brian has consulted on more than 120 water projects worldwide. He serves as a water advisor to some of the world’s largest corporations, investment banks, and the United Nations, and has testified before the U.S. Congress on multiple occasions. He also teaches a course on Water Sustainability at the University of Virginia. Brian has developed numerous scientific tools and methods to support river protection and restoration efforts, including the Indicators of Hydrologic Alteration software that is being used by water managers and scientists worldwide. Brian was featured in a BBC documentary with David Attenborough on “How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?” He has published many scientific papers on the importance of ecologically sustainable water management in international science journals, and co-authored a book with Sandra Postel entitled Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature (Island Press, 2003). His new book, Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability, was published by Island Press in June 2014.