BY Rebecca Wodder
In the life of a river, a decade is but a drop of water in a roiling current. Viewed through the lens of public policy and perception, a decade can be a lifetime.
This week marks the 10-year anniversary of the removal of the Edwards Dam — an event that not only had profound benefits for the Kennebec River but that also marked a significant turning point for river restoration and the practice of dam removal in our country and around the world.
I was privileged to be there on the river bank in Augusta, watching the very moment that the Kennebec flowed free for the first time since the days of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau.
I remember the church bells tolling as the dam came down, ringing in a new era for the river. Today, the Kennebec is reborn, home to abundant fish populations, improved water quality, enhanced recreational activity and communities that are turning back toward the river.
Little did we know that those bells would be heard as far away as Pennsylvania, North Carolina, California. We even received multiple media inquires from Japan after Edwards Dam was removed.
Edwards was not the first dam in the nation to be removed, but the event prompted the first national discussion about the role of dams and the importance of healthy rivers to our communities and our environment.
People from a range of political persuasions and points of view started to appreciate that dams are not meant to serve as enduring monuments, but rather as tools that eventually wear out or become obsolete. They also started to recognize and appreciate that healthy, free-flowing rivers can deliver a host of benefits to communities.
In the 10 years since the removal of the Edwards Dam, more than 430 outdated dams have been removed nationwide and the number of recorded dam removals grows each year, thanks to the work of American Rivers and its partners. Most of these did not involve the fanfare or the years of debate that surrounded the Edwards Dam.
Since 1999, nearly 100 dams have been removed across Pennsylvania, from creeks flowing through rural Amish communities to the city of Philadelphia, eliminating public safety hazards and improving water quality. In Oregon, removal of the 50-foot-high Marmot Dam on Sandy River was advocated and paid for by the electric utility that owned it, in order to restore native salmon runs.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., fought tirelessly for funding to remove Embrey Dam on the Rappahannock River, and he characterizes the dam removal and river restoration as his proudest achievement in his 30-year career.
A tentative agreement has been reached between farmers, fishermen, native tribes and a power company to remove dams on the Klamath in California.
Maine’s famed Penobscot River is the site of another landmark agreement to remove obsolete dams and restore fabled runs of Atlantic salmon.
While every river and dam is unique, successful restoration projects are always achieved through a combination of vision, perseverance and collaboration.
In addition to the innumerable stories of individual dam removals that followed close on the heels of Edwards, states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have launched entire dam removal initiatives. New Hampshire and Massachusetts have state agency programs and staff dedicated to dam removal and river restoration.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has partnered with American Rivers to distribute nearly $4 million over the past seven years to provide direct financial and technical assistance for the removal of obsolete dams. The non-partisan issue was embraced by the Bush administration, which created the Open Rivers Initiative in 2005 to fund and support the removal of dams and the restoration of rivers. And the Obama administration continues to expand our nation’s investment in river restoration through the Economic Recovery Act, which includes dam removal project funding.
Dams will continue to play an important and valuable role in our economy and our society. The removal of the Edwards Dam did nothing to change that, nor should it.
Instead, it awakened us to the idea that rivers have a remarkable ability to heal themselves and that removing an outdated dam can bring a river back to life, while creating new opportunities for the people who live and work along its banks.
Rebecca Wodder is president of the nonprofit group, American Rivers, www.americanrivers.org.