BRADLEY, Maine — Before the Great Works Dam removal began on June 11, the Penobscot River upstream of the century-plus old obstruction was flat, murky and calm.
According to Laura Rose Day, executive director of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, that impoundment had none of the qualities that make rivers special, and also lacked the qualities that make lakes such vital parts of an ecosystem.
As of mid-August, that stretch of the river has changed drastically as crews continue work to remove the dam from the Penobscot by the time winter rolls around.
The Great Works Dam removal is the first to go as part of the landmark Penobscot River Restoration Project. In coming years the Veazie Dam will also be removed, and a dam in Howland will be bypassed, allowing sea-run fisheries access to more than 1,000 miles of upstream habitat that has been closed to their predecessors for more than 100 years.
“The river right now looks like a river flowing through,” Rose Day said. “Before the restoration work started, if you walked to the shoreline above the dam, the water was basically flat, kind of this dark water that was uniform throughout.”
Rose Day explained that impoundments above dams are typically not well oxygenated and do not have diverse habitat. That was the case above the Great Works Dam.
“Now, if you go down there, there’s more shoreline, of course, because the water level has dropped. We’re still in progress right now so it isn’t like it will be when we’re finished, but you can see the main channel of the river flowing through. You can see that there will be rapids. You can see where there are natural areas where there are rocks and boulders.”
In addition, Rose Day said workers uncovered a “remnant dam” that runs parallel to the shoreline and was likely used to sort logs before the Great Works Dam existed, and boom islands that had been under water.
“This area, of course, had scores of dams in it. Of course we think of the one big dam, but over the course of centuries, I’m not even sure we know how many dams there have been,” she said.
Rose Day said that Veazie will take center stage in 2013, and the permits the Penobscot River Restoration Trust has secured allow the group to begin work on the Veazie Dam on July 15 of next year — after the typical peak of salmon returns on the river.
As of mid-August, however, Rose Day was focusing her attention on the stretch of river above Great Works, where a lot of work, including relocating mussels, has been taking place.
“I think over the last couple of weeks, it’s gone from looking like it has for the last more than a century, with a free-flowing river below and a flat slack-water above the dam, to looking like the river that used to flow through this site,” she said.