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Environment and Outdoors

Final Piece Completed in 16 Year Penobscot River Restoration

A.J. Higgins
A view of the new fish bypass at the Howland Dam.

It took 16 years and more than $60 million, but the Penobscot River Restoration Project is now complete, and one of the state’s mightiest rivers has been reconnected to the sea.

State, federal, local and tribal officials gathered at the Howland Dam Tuesday to mark the final step in the completion of the project, the opening of a naturally modeled fish bypass system considered to be one of the largest and most innovative of its type in the country.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Atlantic Salmon Federation and other conservation groups devoted years to the completion of the Penobscot River Restoration Project. But members of the Penobscot Indian Nation have an even longer history with the waterway that bears their name.

Chris Sockalexis opened the celebration of the Howland Fish Bypass with a Penobscot honor song. Later, Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis, who has had his share of serious disagreements with state officials over river issues, says he viewed the success of the restoration project as an example of how it is possible to unite to achieve a common goal.

“It’s the friendships we’ve created through this, it’s the ability of the tribe to be able to talk about itself — something we love to do by the way — and really educate people about why philosophically we come at things a certain way,” he says.

The collaboration between hydroelectric dam owners, state and local officials and federal agencies began in 1999, eventually leading to the removal of the Great Works dam in Bradley three years ago and the Veazie dam two years later, as a way to restore native sea-run fish to more than 1,000 miles of their historic habitat.

This week’s celebration of the $3.2 million Howland Dam fish bypass is an example of how hydropower and the needs of Maine’s fisheries can be balanced, says Sherry White, the assistant Northeast regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Natural construction elements in the bypass offer sea-run fish the type of currents they use during migration as well as pools that give them a place to rest.

“So this is the last major milestone in the Penobscot River Restoration Project,” White says. “And this alternative to dam removal puts our latest technology to work and it’s the largest naturelike bypass in the country.”

That’s good news for fish such as the Atlantic salmon, river herring — including alewives — and shad that have already returned to areas of the river in numbers not seen for more than a century.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, says nearly 2 million river herring have already entered areas formerly blocked to them by the dams.

“This is a historic effort to restore this river with millions, pushing now going on two million fish already coming back coming back to the Penobscot River, a number that I just can’t get over that we’re at that level already,” he says. “We never would have expected that we would have achieved that number at this early state.”

Much of the organization and oversight of the 16-year effort was undertaken by the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, a nonprofit organization that soldiered through a complicated series of negotiations with federal and state agencies.

Laura Rose Day, the trust’s executive director, says the more than $60 million raised to fund the project featured a variety of contributors.

“The project altogether was a mix of public and private funding and donations to the project range from people who built rods and sold them to donate to the project to large major gifts and federal funds, Land for Maine’s Future funds,” she says.

Andrew Goode of the Atlantic Salmon Federation says the rapid rebound of sea-run fish to the river demonstrates that the Penobscot will function as a river should through a project that epitomizes the balance between fisheries restoration, recreation and cultural use alongside hydropower generation.