Fish Return to River
by Glenn Adams, Associated Press
AUGUSTA, Maine - A year after giant backhoes tore down a dam that had blocked the Kennebec River for 162 years, sea-run fish are swimming upstream in stunning numbers and the water is more full of life than it has been in generations.
Conservationists say something else has been accomplished since the Edwards Dam became the first dam the federal government ordered removed as a way to protect the environment.
"It has made people realize that dam removal isn't a crazy idea," said Margaret Bowman of American Rivers, which also is targeting other dams around the country. "The debate has shifted from `Should any dam be removed?' to `Does this dam make sense?' "
Since the Edwards Dam's removal last year, two dozen others from Idaho to North Carolina have come down, and at least 18 others are scheduled to be removed this year, according to the environmental group.
The dams create power, protect towns from floods, improve navigation and provide irrigation, but environmentalists say hundreds of them across the country have outlived their usefulness and are causing environmental damage.
Environmentalists want to see four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington breached to protect wild salmon runs. U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., has pledged to prevent their removal, which he said could cost the government $1 billion.
"Removal of Edwards doesn't prove the Snake River dams should be removed," said Bowman of American Rivers, which is a leader of the Washington effort. "But it shows that rivers can restore themselves when given the chance to do so."
In Maine, removing Edwards Dam opened an upstream stretch of the Kennebec River to Atlantic salmon, striped bass, endangered shortnosed sturgeon and other fish for the first time since the 1830s.
Water quality has improved to a point where it supports a healthy river ecosystem, say state environmental officials, who see more creatures and a more varied range of life in the river.
Alewives migrated back from the ocean in such numbers this spring that people scooped them up by the bucketful from the water 20 miles upstream from where the dam once sat. Atlantic salmon had found their way up the river just weeks after the demolition. Recently, sturgeon have been seen leaping from waters where they had been absent since the days of Henry David Thoreau.
Removing the dam also has opened up new opportunities for recreation such as boating and fishing.
Environmentalists call the Kennebec's revival a monumental success story.
"Hopefully, what it will do is help other people's attitudes as they look at other dams" that may be ripe for removal, said Andy Goode of the American Salmon Federation.
Edwards Dam was built in 1837 to provide riverside factories in Augusta with mechanical power. On July 1, 1999, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt watched along with hundreds of other spectators as machines gouged an opening that let water flow through the dam that had spanned 917 feet across the Kennebec.
With its relatively low power output and advanced age, Edwards had long been targeted by conservationists nationally as a prime candidate for removal.
When its owners sought re-licensing in 1997, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission denied the application, ruling that more benefit would be gained by opening the river to several species of sea-run fish than by keeping Edwards' power generators humming. Opponents argued the dam generated only 0.1 percent of the state's power.
Edison Electric Institute, which represents shareholder-owned utilities that produce 75 percent of the nation's electricity, believes the commission overstepped its authority when it ordered Edwards removed. The company is concerned about the impact the dam's removal could have on the country's overall energy supply, said spokesman Dan Riedinger.
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