September 23, 2017

Presumpscot River

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Presumpscot River, by Dusti Faucher
(photo Friends of the Presumpscot)

It seems like the most natural thing in the world, water flowing quickly over rocks…forming little eddies and pools as it makes its way from its source to the sea. But since we harnessed rivers and streams for our own uses, the natural flows of many streams do anything but flow quickly and abundantly as nature designed them to do.

Since the first settlers to Maine’s shores, we have used the awesome power of rivers to improve our lives. When there were no alternatives to using
water power to grind our flour and mill the logs necessary for homes and businesses, it was logical to build as many dams and pull as much water from streams as needed to make our cites and towns flourish. Now we are beginning to see a shift in the paradigm, where we value rivers not only for what they can do for us, but for their intrinsic value and for their value to the creatures that live in the rivers or depend on them for survival.

The Presumpscot, once a rocky, swiftly moving river that bombed its way down from Sebago Lake, is one river whose flows are drastically changed from the
river’s historic and natural course. Smelt Hill dam, at
the head of tide on the Presumpscot River, was removed in the fall of 2002. This dam, built by Colonel Westbrook in 1735 as the first dam in Maine, changed the way water flowed in the Presumpscot
for 268 years by blocking fish passage, altering the river’s character and diminishing the food sources for Native Americans and settlers alike.

Today, with the removal of Smelt Hill dam, the river flows once again over Presumpscot Falls in the same manner it did in 1735. The reemerging pools and eddies are shelter for fish and the water is filled with oxygen as it tumbles over the rocks and ledges. It no longer blocks passage for migratory fish that swim up the river to spawn in the spring, or for larger predatory fish that chase the schools of smaller fish as a food source. Water levels are lower than the flooded conditions that once existed in the pond behind the dam, causing less shoreland erosion and less warming of the water temperatures. The lower segment of the river, above the former dam site, has
two significant tributaries, the Piscataqua River and Mill Brook, distributing the fisheries into a larger portion of the watershed. These streams provide habitat and passage for several species such as alewives, American shad and Atlantic salmon, that could not migrate upstream before dam removal.

casco_bayAlthough the Smelt Hill dam is gone, the Presumpscot has eight more dams, which have altered the river. Its character is now that of a slow moving series of ponds, home to a small warm water fishery instead of its historical population of coldwater and migratory fish. Several waterfalls and rapids are flooded by the ponds behind the dams, and the natural aeration of the river is lost.

The watershed drains the most populated land area in Maine, including its fastest growing communities such as Windham, Gorham and Falmouth, as well as the city of Portland. While the surrounding towns are densely populated in some areas, the shores of the Presumpscot are not very built-up. There are small pockets of development, but large tracts of land are in farm fields or woodlands. As the towns in the watershed look to the future, the protection and restoration of this watershed is critical in maintaining
a sense of why we live in Maine. The Presumpscot is situated where it can contribute greatly to the economy and enjoyment of thousands of people, especially those who would not have the opportunity
to travel significant distances to the North Woods to enjoy unspoiled nature and fisheries. Restoration of its nature features, preservation of riparian land and its migratory populations will enhance the rest of the Presumpscot as it has the lower river since Smelt Hill dam’s removal.

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(photo Friends of the Presumpscot)

The story of the Presumpscot mirrors so much of Maine and New England’s history: Indian wars with settlers over the building of dams and taking of land,
the loss of fisheries as food to the inland settlers due to dams and the blocking of migratory fish, the conversion of the mechanical power of the rivers into
hydroelectric power for the industrial age. And now finally, the realization that we need these rivers for more than waste disposal and power generation; that the watershed, including the river, the lakes and the oceans are all connected; that what we do to one has an impact on the rest; and that we need nature
to sustain us as people.

Friends of the Presumpscot
P.O. Box 223
S. Windham, ME 04082
FOPR@presumpscotriver.org
www.pre-maine.org