Hundreds of years ago, before the first European settlers came to Maine, the region looked very different. Towering white pines dominated the landscape; free-flowing rivers roared their way through forested inland reaches and out to the Gulf of Maine. And a dozen species of native sea-run fish migrated up Maine’s rivers every year. Atlantic salmon, American shad, striped bass, alewives, rainbow smelt and blueback herring were all among the fish that moved upriver in abundant numbers from saltwater to freshwater spawning and rearing habitat.
But with the damming of our rivers came huge declines in native fish populations. As early as the eighteenth century, selectmen from the town of Gorham petitioned a court in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to order that fish passage be built at several dams on the Presumpscot River, because the fish on that river were “Intirely Deprived of the use of said River.” Now, early in a new century two hundred years later, we face the prospects of crashing marine fish populations and a looming energy crisis. In this period of increased awareness of ecosystem fragility and the limits of peak oil there is great potential for successful river restoration efforts.
However, with the intense interest in generating new and local forms of power, there is still a remarkable amount of confusion about the actual role of hydropower and the many antiquated and obsolete dams that litter Maine’s waterways. While about 120 dams in Maine are regulated and managed for power generation, an unknown number of dams remain moldering in place, unregistered and serving no purpose, clogging up our rivers and brooks. In some cases their original purpose is unknown, and those who built them are long gone. These obsolete dams create barriers for migratory fish, and greatly reduce the health of our coastal and riverine ecosystems. Their capacity for providing meaningful levels of power is virtually non-existent, but their negative impact on fisheries, water quality, and river health are very real.