The Shawmut Dam on the Kennebec River, shown from a riverbank in Fairfield in 2022, is among four dams on the river now up for federal relicensing. Morning Sentinel file

Maine is a national leader in removing old and underperforming dams to restore populations of migratory fish. It’s working. The Saccarappa Falls Dam was removed from the Presumpscot River in 2019 and alewives returned for the first time since 1730. The run of river herring along the Kennebec has become the largest in North America after the Edwards Dam was removed in 1999, exceeding 3 million fish annually.

We now have an opportunity to continue Maine’s proud tradition and restore miles of fish habitat. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, known as FERC, is currently debating the future of four dams along the Kennebec: the Shawmut, Weston, Lockwood, and Hydro-Kennebec Projects.

In late May, thousands of Mainers showed up in person or submitted comments to FERC and shared the same message: These unnecessary dams should be removed.

I wholeheartedly agree, and I’ve seen the benefits of dam removal as a long-time conservation professional in New Jersey. As the former executive director of Duke Farms, a nature preserve and sustainability center in Hillsborough, I worked with corporate, farming, recreational and conservation interests, including regulators, to design an acceptable way to remove a series of dams on the Raritan River in order to restore spawning runs of American shad and other species. These dam removals were funded by a natural resources damage settlement, and involved finding several innovative ways to address issues that at first seemed to preclude removing some or all of the dams in question.

These efforts were often complex, and involved some serious roll-up-your-sleeves collaborative, give and take efforts. But the group sought and found a way to balance various interests — preserving existing commercial and agricultural water usage of the river and reconstructing the active sanitary sewer line. Of necessity, this involved including the costs of modifying some of the intakes and relocating the sewer line in the total project costs for removing the dams. But by working in good faith, the job got done, and I am happy to report that the last of the four dams is about to be removed, and the Raritan is being restored to its former status as the Queen of New Jersey rivers.

This kind of work should continue in Maine, where I now live and serve on the board of Maine Audubon. Maine is home to numerous species of sea-run fish that spend part of their lives in the ocean, and part of their lives in freshwater, including alewives, blueback herring, American eels, and the endangered Atlantic salmon. These species need to move freely between habitats at specific times in their life cycles in order to survive. Dams with insufficient fish passage infrastructure — like these four dams on the Kennebec River — largely prevent these species from making those movements. Dams also change sections of free-flowing rivers and streams with cool well-oxygenated water into impoundments of warm reservoirs of low-oxygen water. Cold-water fish species such as brook trout and Atlantic salmon avoid these warm still waters and their populations become limited to where cool running water is available.

Reopening Atlantic salmon spawning grounds of the headwaters of the Kennebec and its upstream tributaries is probably the last best chance to save the fish, as well as a host of other species.

Fish and wildlife are held in the public trust by our elected government. That agreement requires harm to fish and wildlife and their habitats to be offset by benefits to the public, but those benefits are no longer enough. These four Kennebec dams represent only 6% of Maine’s overall hydroelectric capacity and are increasingly unnecessary as the state accelerates the transition to solar and wind energy to combat climate change.

Experience in Maine, New Jersey, and elsewhere is clear: the fish, wildlife, and free-flowing rivers are worth more than these outdated dams supply. I hope FERC listens to the thousands of Mainers asking for these dams to be removed.

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