January 23, 2018
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The other side of the dam

By Frank Heller, Katahdin Energy Works

Dam removal advocates always make the assumption that sea-run fish will once again return to the waterway, replacing the aquatic habitat lost when the dam pond is lost. Unfortunately, they don’t document their assumption to the satisfaction of skeptics who have seen dams removed and little if any sea-run fish return.

Whether fishing groups in Connecticut, marine biologists at Orono or a recently closed fishing tackle shop on the shores of the Kennebec in Bath, there are serious doubts being expressed.

Sure, some may come back, but not enough to justify taking down the dam.

This is some of the downside of dam removal.

Shoreline lost is valuable waterfront lost is property tax revenue lost, and that hurts social services, schools and other public programs valued by Maine’s aging population.

Behind every dam is a recreational and fishing habitat. The large volume of water supports many other edible fish species; taking away species that can be food and replacing them with native salmon that can’t be caught or eaten is not wise public policy. Many question whether making salmon a “sacred” fish is a wise goal; especially when we did the same to eagles and ospreys who now feast on the fish in many waterways.

Recent catastrophic events have wreaked havoc throughout the Northeast this fall. Once-forested valleys have been stripped and partially paved over. An 18-hole golf course is designed to shed water, not store it. Likewise for the extensive roads and power-line rights of way needed for wind farms.

So the water rages down waterways and destroys major highways, bridges and culverts and removes vegetation that protects banks that stabilize the water way.

Systems of dams, such as those on the Androscoggin River, were designed to moderate once-raging rivers. Despite what climate engineers say, I don’t think that our warming, wetter weather is going away as soon as those CO2 emissions are eliminated.

Loss of hydro power is perturbing and a violation of public policy. Efficiency Maine has made it a priority to fund projects that displace fossil power, not rely on it.

Removing hydro power from the grid means more reliance on fossil-fueled power generation such as natural gas and coal and it means less stability when it comes to the inconsistencies of wind farms and their upwardly spiraling maintenance costs.

Yarmouth is finding out the hard way, through legal action, that dam removal is not just a local issue but something that affects every town on the Royal River. It also affects marina operators downstream who want assurances their basins will be routinely dredged of the silt and debris washed downstream. Dredging is an expensive undertaking but to hundreds of boaters, absolutely essential.

Toxic wastes stored under the sedimentation behind dams are an unknown factor and a costly one to mitigate. No core samples have been taken and, once again, an assumption is made that there are no toxics in the sediment to be unleashed on downstream communities.

And when all the costs are added up and the dam is removed there is no assurance the sacred salmon or alewives which they feed upon will return. The problem, in the words of one marine biologist, lays far at sea, during the five or six years salmon and alewives migrate, but not in the impediments in waterways. Alewives are the food source for many predators, among them salmon, eagles, ospreys and seals. They are the weak link in the food chain.

There was discussion among members of the Tide Mill Institute at a recent meeting in Kennebunkport of using mill ponds as fisheries as is done in Europe. The tailings from grist mills were fed to eels, pike and other species and town residents were allowed to fish for them in a regulated way. In this way a tide mill can produce power and sustain an indigenous fishery for the benefit of low-income people.

Maine has perhaps 2,000 mill sites, many of which can both produce power and raise fish to be released during fish migration periods for predatory species such as the salmon. Feed them and they, like long lost relatives, will return to Maine.

Frank Heller owns and operates Katahdin Energy Works ( KatahdinEnergyWorks.com). He specializes in finding sites for small hydro and tidal power plants so that they enhance an aquatic habitat in addition to simply producing power from a range of turbines. He is located in Brunswick.

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