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Dam Removal Gave Back Life to Kennebec

July 01, 2009 - AUGUSTA -- Sidney resident George Viles said he felt frustrated and anxious 10 years ago that the Edwards Dam was being removed.

But on his first fishing trip after the Kennebec River ran free, he landed three striped bass and a large smallmouth in 20 minutes.

Viles, like those fish, was hooked.

On Tuesday, those who advocated for removal gathered at the former site of the dam in Augusta, and celebrated the return of fish upstream and improvement in the river.

Viles said he and others in Sidney, as well as across the river in the similarly small town of Vassalboro, had most of the Kennebec River shoreland that was changed by removal of the dam. Yet before the dam was removed, nearly all of the debate focused on the impact on Waterville and Augusta, cities at either end of the 17-mile impoundment created by the dam.

"So we wondered, what were we in between, chopped liver?" Viles said. "We small-town people were the ones whose property would be most directly affected, whose habits of usage, whose sense of place, would be changed. And we did use the impoundment."

Within hours of dam removal, Viles lost about 20 feet of river surface all along his frontage, and 12 to 14 feet of depth.

Then the birds, insects and other critters from the woods came back. So did oxygen, stirred up by the river flowing faster and over and around gravel bars, greatly improving water quality.

"This is the health of flowing, oxygenated water," Viles said. "The river smells great. The river attracts all sorts of life, including paddlers and fishermen and -women and those of us of all ages compelled to skip rocks.

"The financial, natural and emotional value of the new river and the whole Kennebec watershed just goes up and up. I think this river, with friends like us, is going to be really healthy."

Edwards Dam was ordered removed, over the objections of its owners, by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which made a determination that the value the dam produced was outweighed by the negative impact it had on the environment.

"Edwards was not the first dam removal," though it was the first functioning hydroelectric dam removed, said Stephanie Lindloff, senior director of American Rivers' river restoration program. "But it was the first one that prompted a more focused discussion about removal of dams, especially those with safety issues and that had outlived their usefulness."

About 100 people -- many of whom were involved in the decade-plus fight to remove the dam -- gathered to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the dam's breaching Tuesday.

The celebration site sits on top of fill that includes demolition debris from the dam itself.

"As I am celebrating here today, I think of just how far we've come in a very short time," said Steve Brooke, of Farmingdale, leader of the dam-removal advocacy organization the Kennebec Coalition. "Ten years is just the beginning when it comes to a river recovering from over 150 years of industrial use."

Brooke credited the late U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, and the federal Clean Water Act, for starting the rebirth of the river.

George LaPointe, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Maine likely had the best run of alewives fish that live at sea and return upstream in rivers such as the Kennebec to spawn on the entire East Coast this year.

Augusta Mayor Roger Katz said the rebirth of the river has helped bring similar activities to its banks from the creation of Mill Park and the ongoing dismantling of the former Statler Tissue mill to weekly concerts bringing hundreds of people to the waterfront.

"When I was a kid, this river was a liability," Katz said. "Buildings were constructed intentionally facing away from the river, because it was dirty and it smelled bad."

"We're turning around. Look around you here, you'll see the seeds of your hard work growing."

By KEITH EDWARDS, Kennebec Journal July 1, 2009


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