Maine’s largest and arguably most impressive river, the Penobscot, is about to take a major leap toward a new future — and what a grand future it will be. As removal of the Great Works Dam begins this Monday, I will be there to celebrate the Penobscot and the significant benefits that the revitalized river will provide for generations to come.
Born and raised in Bangor, I’ve had a lifelong relationship with the Penobscot. As a child, I remember experiencing the stench of a still polluted river and hearing stories of a legendary Atlantic salmon fishery and presidential salmon tradition that no longer existed. As a professional river guide, I spent countless hours running rapids and paddling canoes and rafts on the West Branch. As an outdoor leadership instructor, I have taught hundreds of students about the power and beauty of Maine’s rivers, including the Penobscot. And as a board member of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, I have watched the Penobscot River Restoration Project since its inception — and have witnessed how two dam removals in the Kennebec watershed have resulted in a rebirth for that great river, offering a hint of what we can expect for the Penobscot.
As heavy machinery moves in to remove sections of the Great Works Dam this week, it is fitting to pay tribute to the dam’s history. Along with other dams on the Penobscot, it provided power for mills and factories that spurred the local economy and provided meaningful jobs manufacturing wood products, pulp and paper, shoes, canoes and clothing — all of which were produced in Old Town. This heritage is part of Maine’s story and should be held up and honored for having bettered the lives of thousands of people over the past century.
But dams also have taken a toll on our rivers. Maine’s rivers once served as open waterways for millions of sea-run fish migrating from the Gulf of Maine to spawning habitat deep inland, but the damming of our rivers — Maine has an estimated 1,000 dams — was like just so many brick walls. Runs of salmon, shad, alewives and other species plummeted as dams proliferated and few of these dams included any form of fish passage.
The fate of these fish wasn’t much of a concern during the decades when our rivers were treated like open sewers for industrial waste, but the federal Clean Water Act has brought us a long way since then. We now have an opportunity to restore sea-run fish populations to our rivers and to strengthen the traditions and recreational and economic opportunities that go hand in hand with healthy rivers. Doing so requires finding the right balance between our continuing need for renewable energy and our growing aspirations for healthy rivers.
The Penobscot River Restoration Project provides just such a balance because it will significantly improve access for 11 species of sea-run fish to nearly 1,000 miles of historic river habitat while maintaining current levels of power generation. Although the Great Works and Veazie dams will be removed as part of the project, and the Howland dam will be decommissioned, the Penobscot River Agreement provides for increased power generation at six existing dams, resulting in no loss of total power production.
It has taken many years and great efforts by a broad coalition to get to this point in the Penobscot’s history, and we should all take note of this remarkable collaboration. State and federal agencies, local and national organizations, the Penobscot Indian Nation and the dam owners, residents and communities along the river and donors from Maine and beyond — all have played a critical role in getting us to Monday’s big moment.
And it’s not just about the fish, as we know from recent experience. Two dam removals on the Kennebec River have shown that select dam removals can have many benefits. Removal of the Edwards Dam (Augusta) in 1999 and the Fort Halifax dam (Winslow) in 2007 have resulted in the largest run of alewives in the country, with more than 2 million returning to the Sebasticook in the past few weeks alone. This annual run draws bald eagles, osprey and many other wildlife, and also lobstermen who harvest valuable local baitfish instead of purchasing bait from out of state. And economists have demonstrated that removal of the Edwards Dam, which has helped the Kennebec reach its healthiest level in more than a century, has boosted property values for waterfront landowners and made it an increasingly attractive destination for a broad range of activities.
Seeing what has happened on the Kennebec makes me particularly excited for the Penobscot. As an NRCM board member, I am proud of the role we have played in helping this project move forward, and as a resident of Maine I am proud of what this project means for a river that has given us so much for so many generations. As the cribwork is removed, we will be giving something back — and that gift will help nourish the river and the people of Maine for generations to come.
Bill Houston is a board member and past president of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. He is a Registered Maine Guide with thousands of river miles guiding canoe and raft trips and teaches outdoor leadership at Somerset Career and Technical Center. He lives in Kingfield.