July 25, 2013

'Ah, freedom': Historic Penobscot dam removal begins

The river restoration project will allow fish access to spawn deep in the heart of Maine.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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Hundreds of people watch the ceremonial breaching of the Veazie Dam from across the Penobscot River in Eddington Monday. Restoring Atlantic Salmon to the Penobscot River by the breaching of the Veazie Dam has been the collaborative effort of the Penobscot Indian Nation, seven conservation groups and state and federal agencies.

The Associated Press

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Read Monday's brief speech by Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis

Because the Veazie Dam is the first dam on the river, its removal represents the first big step for improving fish access.

In terms of the amount of habitat that would be regained, the entire project is the largest river restoration project in the United States.

The project is seen as a model for river restoration efforts around the world because it was made possible by cooperative agreement among environmental groups, federal agencies, an Indian tribe and a power company.

The agreement improves fish passage while allowing a power company, Black Bear Hydro, to increase power generation at six dams in the river basin, so there will be no net loss of power production.

During negotiations with the power company and federal regulators, the Penobscots used their claim of tribal fishing rights as leverage to improve fish passage. For the power company, the agreement provided the stability it needed to invest in technology that allowed its turbines to work more efficiently.

Developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia are eager to build dams to produce cheap power. Environmentalists will never be successful if their only argument is to never build one, said Tom Rumpf, associate state director of The Nature Conservancy.

He said the Penobscot River Restoration Project provides an alternative model: Plan for an entire river basin and build dams in strategic locations so that fish can still access spawning areas.

"You can maintain hydropower and still have tremendous conservation benefits," he said.

In 1833, when a dam was built at Veazie for the first time to power a sawmill, the Penobscot Indians protested that the dam would destroy the annual runs of salmon and other sea-run fish.

Their complaints went unheeded, even when thousands of shad and alewives the following spring lingered about the new dam and died there, filling the air with a powerful stench.

The sea-run fish that once journeyed up the Penobscot River by the millions to spawn have dwindled to the hundreds. It's been more than 25 years since the Penobscot Indian Nation formally harvested a salmon for a ceremony.

On Monday, while crews continued to hammer away the dam, Joe Dana, a Penobscot Indian, paddled toward the dam in a birch bark canoe he made with other members of the tribe.

Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Indian Nation, looked on and remarked that most elders never imagined that this day would come.

"Our entire community is ecstatic," he said. "What this project represents is hope for the future that has been lost for a very long time."

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

Tbell@pressherald.com 

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Hundreds of people came to watch the ceremonial breaching of the Veazie Dam in Eddington Monday. Spectators were able to walk alongside the riverbank below the dam. Restoring Atlantic Salmon to the Penobscot River by the breaching of the Veazie Dam has been the collaborative effort of the Penobscot Indian Nation, seven conservation groups and state and federal agencies.

The Associated Press

  


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