River's Rebirth Surprises
by Dan McGillvray
AUGUSTA — One year after an excavator ripped open Edwards Dam, supporters of the dismantling hailed the action as a boon for Kennebec River fish restoration, recreational activities, downtown economic development and access to waterfront green space.
Standing near the banks of the slow-moving river — osprey circling overhead and sturgeon jumping from the water — speakers on Thursday said sea-run fish are now abundant in Waterville and anglers are landing trophy-sized catches. They gathered near the dam site to mark the first anniversary of the breaching.
"The river is full of fish. I have caught striped bass and shad," said Bill Townsend of Canaan, one of the early supporters of removing the 917-foot dam that impounded water to generate electricity.
The first dam at the site was built in 1837.
Since that time, sea-run fish such as alewives, striped bass, American shad and Atlantic sturgeon had been blocked from upstream spawning grounds. Besides allowing them unrestricted passage for another 17 miles, the dam's removal also has affected insect populations, shoreline ecology and water quality.
David Courtemanch, of the Department of Environmental Protection, said invertebrates are returning to the river. The DEP monitors insects to determine water quality.
"We have been putting (weighted cone-shaped) baskets in the river and we would get under 100 insects, snails and invertebrates," Courtemanch said of pre-dam removal samples. Since the rock-filled timber crib barrier was dismantled, the baskets have attracted from 2,000 to 3,000 insects and the number of individual species has doubled and tripled, he explained.
Courtemanch said those numbers, and other data, indicate the river is much cleaner than before the dam was removed.
"Frankly, I didn't expect a lot of change to occur. It was unbelievable," he added. Moving water boosts oxygen levels in the water and the DEP's rating of the river's water quality north of the former dam site has been raised from Class C to B, said Courtemanch.
Higher populations of insects also provide more food for fish and other animals in the unobstructed section. Shallower water in North Augusta and Sidney allows sunlight to penetrate deeper into the water's ecosystem, as well.
The state owns the former Edwards Manufacturing Co. parcel that covers 17 acres along the river. The dam, which cost about $3 million to remove, was a short distance from the factory building that burned in 1989.
Huge piles of gravel and topsoil sit near the entrance gate to the property. City Manager William Bridgeo said the material will be spread by this fall to raise the land's level.
"In very short order, this property will be turned over to the city. I hope it will be developed into a world-class attraction," he said. Work will proceed during the next two years in conjunction with plans to revitalize the north end of downtown.
Councilor Delaine Nye said she envisions transforming the riverfront property into a parklike setting that could complement small businesses such as a canoe rental outfit, a farmers' market, shops with Maine-made goods and food vendors.
"But it should be kept as natural as possible," she said. As a first step, the city should begin cleaning up debris on the site, Nye added.
The city has formed the Capital Riverfront Improvement District to provide access to the river while protecting scenic characteristics and promoting economic initiatives.
While officials in Augusta plan for a new Edwards Mill site, fisheries biologists intend to continue tracking the progress of sea-run fish up the Kennebec River.
George Lapointe, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, said Thursday that sea-run fish are swimming above the former Edwards site to Fort Halifax dam on the Sebasticook River in Winslow, and Lockwood Dam in Waterville.
About 2 million alewives reached the barrier across the Sebasticook, and six million alewives are expected in that area in future years, Lapointe explained. The fish are hatched in upriver lakes and ponds and migrate to the ocean.
The marine resources department caught 45 American shad, another sea-run fish that previously was blocked by Edwards Dam, at the Fort Halifax Dam. They were taken to a state-run Waldoboro hatchery for spawning and selected introduction of eggs.
Steve Brooke, a spokesman for American Rivers, said the main reason the Edwards Dam was removed was to assist sea-run fish restoration in the river.
"All I can say is, so far, so good. The green vegetation (along the banks) came back good, and the stripers went right to Waterville last fall. They wasted no time," he explained. The dam's initial breaching occurred July 1, 1999 and the river in Augusta and Sidney was at historic water levels by mid-August.
Brooke, a Farmingdale resident, said he knows of no negative impacts on the river since the breaching one year ago.
"It's been a blessing of richness here, with some surprises. The bad predictions didn't come to pass," he added. Emergency management officials were concerned late last winter about ice buildup on the river, south of the former dam.
And last year, some observers warned that toxins in old paper mill and factory discharges would be stirred up in sediments when the river moved at a quicker clip without the barrier in Augusta. That agitation could have harmed fish populations, they said.
DEP Commissioner Martha Kirkpatrick, who attended Thursday's riverfront ceremony, said that never materialized.
The dam's removal also opens the river for new and exciting recreational opportunities, said Ralph Ardito, owner of Belgrade Canoe and Kayak Sales.
"All the changes are positive. The fishing is incredible and the potential is huge. The next step is to take down the other dams. They're not only blocking fish, they're blocking people," he said.
The first two dams above Augusta that fish and boaters encounter are in Waterville and Winslow. Fish passageways are expected to be installed in those dams within the next several years.
Sandra Lary, a marine resources scientist who is monitoring the fish-restoration program in the river, said eight sampling sites will be established between Augusta and Waterville to survey fish populations. Researchers will also study fish habitats.
Five-foot-long sturgeon have been seen jumping in the Kennebec River this year, and several displayed their acrobatic talents to onlookers during Thursday's anniversary celebration. A three-person crew from CNN's Atlanta headquarters covered the event, as did a news reporter from Japan.
Laura Rose Day, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the river will be analyzed for many years, and people from other states and countries will track the findings. Since the dam was breached, she has met in Augusta with people from Japan, China, Norway and Canada to discuss and view the river.
"The dam coming out was the beginning, not the end," said Day.
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