It took a historic decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and an unusual collaboration between environmental groups, the city of Augusta and the state of Maine to remove the Edwards Dam. But 20 years later, the hard-fought effort is being replicated and celebrated around the country as native, sea-run fish, bald eagles and other wildlife continue to return to the Kennebec River.
As dams go, the Edwards wasn’t particularly large: 24 feet high and 920 feet long. And when a backhoe tore into the impoundment 20 years ago this week and freed the river for the first time in 162 years, it didn’t look or sound terribly dramatic to the crowd that gathered to watch on shore.
The dam was demolished only after federal regulators determined that the ecological benefits of removing it outweighed the value of the electricity it produced. That was something that had never occurred before.
Around the world, says Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, people took notice. And as the Kennebec continues its natural resurgence, he says they’re still paying attention.
“Just before the breach, then-Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt predicted that this dam removal would mark the beginning of an entirely new chapter in watershed restoration, and did it ever,” said Didisheim, who was among those gathered at Mill Park in Augusta Monday to toast the 20th anniversary of the dam’s removal.
Since 1999 the Fort Halifax Dam in Winslow has been removed along with the Great Works and Veazie dams on the Penobscot River, restoring 2,000 miles of habitat to sea-run fish. Similar efforts are taking place around the country.
According to the group American Rivers, nearly 1,200 dams have been demolished over the past 20 years, with a record 99 taken out in 2018 alone. At the time of the Edwards Dam’s removal, not everyone thought it was a good idea, as then-Augusta Mayor William Dowling acknowledged in his remarks to the crowd.
“Whether you support the removal or not, we will move forward and look at the river with new eyes,” he said.
Augusta was home not only to the dam but to the paper manufacturing plant it powered and to some residents who thought of the Kennebec only as a working river.
“‘You want to bring salmon back to the Kennebec? I wouldn’t let my dog swim in that river.’‘ That’s a quote I heard in 1996,” says Jeff Reardon of Trout Unlimited.
Reardon describes himself as a “passionate angler” and says the Kennebec’s potential was not as obvious 30 years ago as it is now. Today, he says the river is home to more than four million alewives and is considered the best shad fishery on the East Coast.
It’s even possible, says State Sen. Matt Pouliot of Augusta, to watch giant Atlantic sturgeon leap out of the water as you sip a beer in a tasting room on Water Street, where the windows face the Kennebec, something that never would have been imagined, he says, until the dam came down.
Originally published July 1, 2019 at 4:43 p.m. ET.