2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act, a remarkable success over these five decades, with its deep ties to Maine thanks to Sen. Edmund Muskie. As Maine is poised to receive over a billion dollars of federal funding to improve our infrastructure, it’s a great time to take stock of where we are and plan for this amazing opportunity.

Thomas Keister maneuvers his boat filled with alewives to an area on the Sebasticook River in Benton, where workers crate the fish that will be sold for lobster bait by the Springtime Bait company. Thanks to restoration efforts, including the removals of the Edwards dam and Fort Halifax dam, millions of alewives and other fish make their way up the Kennebec into the Sebasticook watershed each year to spawn. David Leaming/Morning Sentinel, File

The basic goals of the Clean Water Act are to prevent, reduce and eliminate pollution in the nation’s water in order to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” The law changed our relationship with our rivers and how we thought and acted as a society. It has been remarkably successful at stopping “point source” pollution from reaching our lakes and rivers. We don’t see pipes spewing filth and raw sewage into our waters, or rivers catching on fire and changing color with mill effluent. Less successful has been changing our awareness and our actions relating to the biological integrity of our waters.

Maine is home to spectacular rivers whose ecological potential is unparalleled. The Kennebec, Penobscot, St. Croix, Androscoggin and Saco rivers and our smaller coastal waterways are woven through our history, also representing remarkable opportunities for future generations to support life and plan for resilience. Maine’s waters are now the most productive on the entire East Coast for river herring, native migratory species that spawn in freshwater but spends most of their life in the ocean. Thanks to restoration efforts, including the removals of the Edwards dam and Fort Halifax dam, millions of alewives and other fish make their way up the Kennebec into the Sebasticook watershed each year to spawn and billions of young fish emerge to feed our cod, haddock and halibut in the Gulf of Maine.

But beyond these hard-won successes, Maine needs to acknowledge that hundreds of dams in our waters harm fish by blocking their movement and are out of attainment for the goals of the Clean Water Act. Obsolete dams harm our waterways and Maine has many of these old structures, built for purposes they no longer serve. Rivers without native fish species are not healthy; we can’t say that they maintain their biological integrity.

While the Kennebec and Penobscot restoration efforts have been tremendously successful, the problems in Maine remain daunting. Numbers of native migratory fish species, like river herring, two species of sturgeon, rainbow smelt, American eel and, of course, the iconic Atlantic salmon are perilously low, at about 5 percent of their historical numbers. Dams also block freshwater mussels, unsung heroes of clean water as each freshwater mussel can filter up to 5 gallons of water a day, improving clarity and removing contamination. Climate change is bringing periods heat, drought and flooding – hard for creatures that require cool waters and refuge to survive and reproduce. How will Maine’s beloved brook trout fare in a warmer future?

Incoming infrastructure funding represents an astonishing opportunity to boost the health of our rivers throughout the Gulf of Maine if we think carefully and plan. To start, Maine should prioritize dam removals over dam repairs, and prioritize dam removals over technical fishways. Yes, it can take time for people to adjust to the idea of a dam removal. But removals are in both the short and long run much more cost-effective and provide a wide range of ecological benefits. Technical fishways, also called fish ladders, can provide solutions for fish passage in places where dams can’t be removed, but they’re complicated; extremely expensive to design, build and operate. They’re also much less efficient at letting fish move upstream and downstream. Building a technical fishway typically costs at least 5 to 10 times more than removing a dam, and the carbon footprint of these concrete structures is significant.

Infrastructure funding offers great opportunities to improve the health of our waters, we need to be ready.

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