BRADLEY, Maine — Some in the crowd of 300 riverside onlookers were likely disappointed on Monday morning that the dismantling of Great Works Dam began not with a bang or a breach but with the steady rat-tat-tat of heavy machinery that slowly chipped away at an aging fish way.
The rest of the dam will follow — slowly. Work will continue throughout the summer. By November, the entire structure will be gone. In 2013 or 2014, the downriver Veazie Dam will also be removed.
And though the modest start of the dam removal process may have lacked a true “wow” moment, after more than a decade of negotiations, planning and fundraising efforts, Monday’s ceremony and the commencement of in-river work was a milestone for those who have rallied in support of the cause.
In all, 17 governmental and conservation groups, corporations and the Penobscot Indian Nation have partnered in the Penobscot River Restoration Project, which calls for the removal of two dams and a fish bypass built at a third. Those efforts will eventually result in the opening of more than 1,000 miles of access to tributaries and the main stem of the Penobscot, benefiting a variety of sea-run fish.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this is the most significant conservation project in our tribe’s history,” said Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Indian Nation. “[That’s a] 10,000-year history with exemplary stewardship. Today I think signifies some of the most significant work that we’ve done as a people in revitalizing this river and getting [sea-run] fish back and being able to exercise that cultural subsistence lifestyle that is so very important.”
Francis said that lifestyle defines his people in ways that can’t be underestimated.
“It’s not just about the ability to fish,” he said. “It’s really about the ability to put your hands on who you are as a people, to be able to have that resource there, to coexist with the river in a healthy way.”
The presence of dams in the Penobscot have been troublesome to the tribe for generations, Francis said.
There has been a dam of one form or another at Great Works since 1830. The current Great Works dam dates back to 1887.
“It’s been a very significant problem for a very long time,” Francis said. “Our tribal historian was in the paper this past week talking about a legend story that’s told to our children about the frog monster and how he had to be slain because he was blocking all the water. [Tribal members] really equate that story to the stories that were passed down about the blockages of the Penobscot.”
Patrick Keliher, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, takes a long-range view at the Penobscot project and recognizes the Great Works dam removal as another key piece of a much larger endeavor. The fact that Great Works will be the first dam removed, however, does make it special.
“I call it the first domino. But this is really the one that starts the rest of them falling,” Keliher said.
Looking further into the future, Keliher sees great things happening on the Penobscot.
“Ten years down the road there will be a million river herring coming back to this system, I bet. We’ll see an expansion of the shad fishery. It’s a management issue for striped bass, but hopefully we’re going to resolve some management issues and we’ll see a robust striped bass fishery again on the lower river,” he said.
Keliher also said the removal of dams on the Penobscot will eventually benefit Atlantic salmon.
“Once you remove upstream and downstream barriers, it only improves their odds,” Keliher said. “So I’m saying, longterm, probably 15, 20 years, because they’ve got a longer generational life, we’ll see the benefit for salmon as well.”
Jeff Reardon of Trout Unlimited said beginning the dismantling of the Great Works Dam was an event worth recognizing.
“For me, it’s unbelievable. I spent five years working on this project and nothing else, along with dozens of other people, many of whom put in more time than that. So seeing it happen is pretty incredible,” Reardon said.
Reardon said river-watchers might not notice much evidence of the work — save a lot of heavy machinery on makeshift rock roads that have built in the river — over the summer, many changes will become evident as time passes.
“We won’t see much physical change here [this summer]. The big ecological changes will start next year, after Veazie comes out,” Reardon said. “And at that point — I’m judging it on what I saw down on the Kennebec [when the Edwards Dam was removed in 1999] — the change will be be pretty rapid and pretty dramatic.”
Barry Dana, a former Penobscot chief, worked on the project when he was in office. On Monday, he was pleased that years of planning had paid off.
“I couldn’t be happier that we’ve done it,” Dana said. “This is a model for the rest of the country.”
John Holyoke may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Check out his blog at outthere.bangordailynews.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnHolyoke.