June 20, 2018
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Rethink Penobscot River restoration

By Joe Bertolaccini, Special to the BDN

Much has been written about the benefits that will be attributed to the Penobscot River restoration project, which is reported to open some 1,000 miles of river to 11 species of migratory fish that now are blocked by three dams. The project calls for the removal of those dams as well as adding generating capacity to the Enfield Dam and constructing fishways at several other sites.
As much as I agree with the general intent of this project and recognize the vast amount of work, negotiations and compromises that took place to make it possible, I feel that we are missing several important points.
It is important to me to have unobstructed and clean waterways in our state. I have enjoyed fly-fishing for the past 60 years of my life and hope that the same opportunity will be available for those who come after me. I also am personal friends and a fishing companion of many who have supported and have been involved in this project.
Having said that, I feel that we have to get our “big picture” priorities straight. From environmental, social and economic viewpoints, one, if not the highest priority in this state, nation and world is to increase and develop more clean, renewable, nonpolluting energy resources. Hydropower is perhaps the cleanest, most reliable, efficient, economical and proven renewable source that now is available.
We should maximize development of hydropower and not settle for the “no net loss” scenario. This obviously would be accomplished by keeping all of our presently functioning hydropower dams on the Penobscot River as well as adding capacity to the Enfield dam and all others where practical.
Second, there is little guarantee that opening more rivers and streams to anadromous species will result in any increase in numbers of Atlantic salmon, striped bass, shad, alewives, etc. These fish have drastically diminished over the years in spite of efforts to remove dams and improve water quality and habitat.
The Atlantic salmon runs that peaked in the 1980s occurred before much of this work was done. There presently are miles and miles of clean and free-flowing rivers and streams in this state that have seen little or no significant runs of fish in recent years. This tells me that these problems cannot be solved in Maine, but must be addressed in a much larger context, such as more stringent commercial fishing regulations, predator control, exploring the effects of ocean temperature changes on our fisheries, eliminating further destruction of marine habitat in our bays and estuaries and overall better conservation management of our marine resources. In my judgment, the $24 million needed to remove functioning power dams would be better spent on those efforts.
Third, by opening 1,000 miles of the Penobscot River to sea-run species, we run a great risk of allowing non-native, invasive predatory species to infiltrate upper reaches of the watershed and beyond, which can have a devastating effect on our well-established and nationally renowned brook trout and landlocked salmon fisheries. All we have to do is look back to the 1950s and ’60s when lamprey eels (which we have an abundance of now in our rivers and streams) almost eliminated the lake trout populations in the Great Lakes. There are simply too many unknowns and changes that have taken place in trying to restore species that haven’t populated our waterways for hundreds of years.
Finally, the loss of existing head ponds on the river can negatively affect the outstanding smallmouth bass fishery that we now have on the Penobscot, as well as lowering water tables and increasing river velocities, which cause bank erosion and excessive silting downstream. Dams in their present condition are excellent silt, debris and pollution traps, further protecting downstream areas. Tailwaters of dams can improve fisheries habitat by forming deep, well-oxygenated pools that can lower summertime water temperatures. Other benefits can include flood control and fire protection as well as a multitude of water-based recreation activities.
I sincerely respect the efforts and dedication of those who are involved in the Penobscot River restoration project, realizing that they are doing what they believe is best for the river and Maine’s resources. However, in consideration of all the above, I feel that this is not the right thing to do, especially at this point in time. My hope is that in planning future river “restoration” projects, the above concerns are adequately addressed.

Joe Bertolaccini of Orrington is an engineer and registered Maine guide.

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