The Merrymeeting Bay Photo by The Rewilding Institute Source
The most significant environmental issue facing the Kennebec River Valley is restoring sea-run fish to parts of the river, which were once their breeding grounds.
The Kennebec River is a 170-mile long river that begins at Moosehead Lake. It winds its way to the Atlantic Ocean past Madison, Skowhegan, Waterville, the state capital of Augusta, and the shipbuilding center of Bath. Finally, it flows into the freshwater tidal bay of Merrymeeting.
Early European explorers like Jacques Cartier, Sebastian Cabot, Samuel de Champlain, and John Smith talked of a bounty of marine mammals, schools of treasured fish, and whales, which were far more abundant than in European waters.
Many of those fish, such as Atlantic salmon, alewives, blueback herring, American shad, striped bass, sturgeons, and eels, spent parts of their lives in the ocean, only returning to the Kennebec River or its tributaries to spawn and create future generations to replenish the waters.
The Dams Produce a Catch-22
Unfortunately, within two hundred years of the European colonists’ arrival, they stripped the bountiful lands they found, drained the wetlands, harvested forests with abandon, and worst of all for the lives of those native fish, they built dams to power mills, which dumped wastes into the waters.
Striped bass, sturgeon, and salmon were fished to near extinction for export back to Europe and other areas. Not seeing through their greed that the dams they constructed to power their mills were also blocking the sea-run fish from returning to their breeding grounds.
The trifecta of dams, water pollution, and overfishing created a death warrant for these sea-running fish. The whales were the first to disappear; now, only rarely seen in the Gulf of Maine or the Merrymeeting Bay, the mouth of the Kennebec. Merrymeeting Bay is also the mouth of the Androscoggin and five smaller rivers.
A Reconnecting Habitat video produced by the Natural Resources Council of Maine shows the progress of the past 20 years since the Edwards Dam removal on 1 July 1999. However, much work remains to be done.
Four Dams on the Kennebec River that Need Removal
Four dams still stand in the way of these sea-run fish natural replenishment. Those are the Hydro-Kennebec Dam, the Shawmut Dam, the Weston Dam, and the Lockwood Dam. These four dams below the Sandy river’s mouth pose a significant problem to the return of Atlantic salmon and other sea-running fish to the Kennebec River.
Likewise, two other dams, the Abnaki and the Anson below the Carrabassett River mouth in Madison, Maine, pose a problem as well.
The Lockwood Dam at least has an upstream passage for fish, but none designed for downstream passage. However, there remains a concern about the newly-installed upstream passage in Lockwood.
The Marine Resources Department of Maine have been transporting Atlantic salmon born in Sandy River, migrated downstream through the four dams to the Atlantic, grown to maturity, came back to the Lockwood Dam capture site, the 50 miles by truck for release into the Sandy River once again to find a mate and spawn.
The Brookfield White Pine Energy LLC, owners of the Kennebec River Dams, is charged with protecting the Atlantic salmon, a protected species on the endangered list, from risks caused by their dams.
The Mousam River Dams
In related news, the Kennebunk Light and Power District (KLPD) has proposed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) deconstruction of four dams on the Mousam River, the Twine Mill, the Dane Perkins, and Kesslen dams.
The lease on these dams would run out in March of 2022, and the KLPD claims they have “ample access to more reliable and more cost-effective sources of electricity.” If approved, they should complete the work before March of 2024.
However, an additional ten dams without fish passages block access above these three but are not controlled by the FERC.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine article, Restoring the Kennebec River above Waterville.
The Portland Press Herald article, Kennebunk Light and Power District to file plan with regulatory agency to surrender Mousam dams
The Maine Rivers article, Advocating for Free-Flowing Rivers.