The Kennebec River once hosted enormous runs of Atlantic salmon, river herring and other fish that live part of their lives in fresh water and part in the ocean. By the 19th century, however, those resources had become only a fast-fading memory. Water pollution, over-harvesting and impassable dams were the death knell.

After World War II, the United States was the greatest economic power in the world. That accomplishment, however, was accompanied by the destruction of wildlife, fouling the waters and the air, and adding poisons to the environment. Eventually realizing we needed a cleaner environment, we adopted laws to chart a path toward that goal.

For almost 50 years, the Maine Department of Marine Resources has worked to restore anadromous fish to the Kennebec. Milestones were removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta in 1999 and the Fort Halifax Dam in Winslow in 2008.

The 2013 river herring run on the Sebasticook River exceeded 2 million fish, the largest run on the Eastern Seaboard. Less than two decades ago, no river herring swam in the Sebasticook River. We can be grateful to the scientists and managers at the department for their decades of hard work.

The potential exists for the alewife run to double in size. Opportunities for access to other lakes are obvious, but languish because of impassable dams.

For shad, the prognosis is troubling. Shad refuse to enter the fish passage facility at the Lockwood Dam.

The numbers of shad are a critical “trigger” element in timetables for installation of upstream and downstream passage at dams farther upriver, presenting a problem that must be addressed.

The original run of Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec River is estimated at 70,000 fish. By the time Maine became independent in 1820, the salmon were almost gone. The final nail in the coffin was the Edwards Dam, built in 1837. By 1850, the only Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec River were a relict population in tributaries below the Edwards Dam.

The tributary of the Kennebec with highest-quality habitat for Atlantic salmon is the Sandy River. Four hydroelectric dams below the Sandy River pose a major problem.

The Department of Marine Resources plants Atlantic salmon eggs in river gravel to mimic nests created by adult spawning females. Staffers capture returning adult Atlantic salmon that are born in the Sandy River, migrate to the ocean past four dams, grow to maturity and return. They are taken to the Sandy River and released, in the expectation that nature will take its course.

The program is endangered, however, by funding cuts at the department. There is also the potential that fertilized eggs will cease to be available for planting.

Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec River are designated as an endangered species. The dams’ owner, Brookfield Energy, must take measures to minimize the risk to Atlantic salmon caused by its dams.

Four actions would go far toward the goal for the Kennebec River to reach its potential for anadromous fish.

* The Department of Marine Resources should use its authority to require the installation of fish passage at impassable dams to provide access to lakes and ponds that can support spawning habitat for alewives, and create a run of alewives of as many as 6 million fish annually.

* The Lockwood and Shawmut dams should be removed so that Atlantic salmon migrating downstream from the Sandy River as juveniles or upstream as adults would need to get past only two dams.

* A brood stock program should be established for Atlantic salmon for the Kennebec River and smaller rivers. Hatcheries are no substitute for natural reproduction, but the Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec River could use a “kick-start.” Construction and operation of the hatchery should be funded by the owners of the dams whose existence makes a hatchery necessary.

* The water of Maine’s rivers is a public asset. Dam owners use this resource for private benefit, with detrimental effects on the environment, but with no compensation to the public for the loss to fisheries that their activities cause.

Dam owners are responsible for undoing the harm that their dams create. They should pay a royalty to government to be held in a dedicated fund to support restoration of anadromous fish.

Clinton B. “Bill” Townsend has practiced law in Skowhegan for more than 50 years. He is a past president and current board member of Maine Rivers, and was a U.S. commissioner to the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization. A longer version of this can be found at the Maine Rivers website, www.mainerivers.org.