Augusta, Maine: The taking down of Edwards Dam -- the first intentional removal of a major hydropower dam in United States history, was scheduled for 9:00 am on a beautiful spring morning in 1999. We arrived early to find a parking place and watch preparations. As a crowd gathered along the east bluff, a great blue heron flew low above the Kennebec River, traveling downstream from where water still flowed smoothly over the 161 year-old structure. Soon out of view, the heron had been disturbed from its usual stalking territory, perhaps by the big diesel shovel digging bucketfuls of soil from a temporary dam across the river, or the large crowd on the opposite shore, a unique mass of white and bright colors in the heron’s habitat. Or perhaps it was the noise of a helicopter and a float-plane circling overhead carrying television crews.The dam was being removed to save migrating fish, restore the river’s habitat, and improve fishing and boating. If fish increased in the river, it might be a boon for the heron. Built in 1837, the dam was operating when Henry David Thoreau canoed Maine’s rivers in the 1840s.
“A bittersweet event,” Augusta’s mayor said as the proceedings started about 8:30 am. And so it was: a willing and willful removal of one of the triumphs of the machine age, a piece of Yankee ingenuity that had provided power, jobs, and prosperity for Augusta, but did so no more.
As the time for the breaching approached, a cormorant also flew down river, black wings flapping low just above the water. Three herring gulls stood in the shallows, watching to see if anything worth eating might turn up.
As we stood by the river, I thought about my own experiences with New England water power. My friend and father-in-law, Heman Chase, had owned a small water-powered mill in East Alstead, a southwestern New Hampshire village. At the turn of the nineteenth century, seven mills lined a short stretch of a stream flowing out of Warren’s Pond. As it tumbled down a steep slope, the stream turned mill wheels to cut wood, grind grain, make cloth.
By the turn of the twentieth century, electrical transmission lines had replaced the old mechanical mills, which were soon abandoned. Heman had restored his mill with the same care and love of technology that leads the Smithsonian to restore antique airplanes, bicycle enthusiasts to restore antique bikes, and car buffs to restore Model T Fords. He installed a turbine wheel inside the mill building at the end of a long flume, instead of a big water wheel outside. The turbine had been the latest technology in the second part of the nineteenth century, invented just before mills made the transition from mechanical to electrical power generation.
Each century and each generation had had its own approach to water power and rivers. Dams were built across the United States to provide power for many kinds of industries, from textile mills to aluminum refineries; to store water for irrigation; to control water to aid ship navigation so that grain and other goods could be transported downriver; for flood control; and for recreation. But dams greatly altered stream habitat. As Thoreau observed on the Merrimack, migrating fish like shad and salmon, once common there, were rare in his time because they could not pass over the dams already in place by the 1840s. Reservoirs behind dams created habitats that favored lake fish over river and stream fish, like trout, that require fast running water and complex stream shapes, with pools alternating with white water. Those who want to keep dams support the economic benefits; suggest that the expense of removal does not justify environmental benefits; that a greatly altered floodplain will be left behind, full of mud and sand from which recovery will take a long time; that hydropower remains one of the cleanest forms of energy and, once oil prices rise, will become a vital resource once again; that recreational benefits of large reservoirs outweigh those of free-running streams; and that it is too late to save species threatened by dams anyway. Those who want to remove dams believe that ecological health of streams is essential to a sound environment; that we must do what we can to save threatened and endangered species such as salmon; that free running rivers provide a better quality of life for people, both in terms of recreation and scenic beauty.
The old mill, a seeming symbol of constancy, was just one stage in a rapid change in society and technology. For Heman, his mill was a symbol of Yankee independence and the ideal of self-sufficiency in a democratic society. Early in his career as a civil engineer, he had helped build a hydroelectric dam at Bellows Falls, Vermont, a depression-era project. He restored his little mill to run a planer, power saw, and drill press, and used the mill to teach neighborhood children carpentry and to instill in them beliefs and attitudes about America, society, and democracy.
One winter, soon after the environment had become a major social issue, I helped him install a new flume, and we spent many hours in the mill, fixing up the building. “Best way to teach physics is to see the mill running,” Heman used to say. Water power was viewed as “clean energy” in the 1970s and 1980s, not polluting the air or water. It seemed an improvement over other forms of energy generation because of these “brown” environmental issues. But today, the emphasis is shifting to the “green” issues: fish in the rivers, trees along the shores, endangered species, and the quality of human life.
Heman admired water power, but he also appreciated landscapes of New England. Making his living as a country surveyor, he spent most of his days mapping old farms that had grown back to woods and were becoming vacation retreats. Sometimes I helped, and we crossed many a stream, bog, and dense woodland, often talking along the way about nature, the conditions of forests, about individual trees or wildlife we saw, and discussing what was best for humanity in terms of politics, economics, and nature.
For 30 years, surveyor Chase had heated his home with firewood cut from his own land, carefully stewarding the forest to provide a continual supply before the terms “sustainability” and even “ecology” were familiar. He died in the 1980s, after a productive and much-admired life, a well know local personality, the country philosopher who could weld steel for his millworks and discuss economics and political history at the same time. And here I was standing before the removal of just the kind of structure my old friend had long admired. What would he think of this day, I mused.
Just after 9:00 am, a bell, tolling along the shore, was answered by a big bell in the Augusta church, announcing the time to breach the dam. The diesel shovel dug deeper and deeper into the temporary earth dam until a shout went up from the crowd and water began to spill through. The thin trickle breached the dam and eroded rapidly downward, moving ever faster. A frothy-brown mud-laden torrent began to run down the far side of the Kennebec, tumbling against an old mill building and spreading its color into the main channel. The river began to clean itself of a century and a half deposits behind the old dam.
Some would say that the removal of the dam was righting an old wrong. Others would say it was a mistake, wronging an old right. But I believe that my friend and father-in-law would have approved of the breaching of Edwards Dam. It was not a matter of absolute right or wrong, but a matter of a change in our society’s needs and desires, a continuation of change and progress, of new ideas, that has characterized American society. The dam and its mills no longer provided prosperity for Augusta, but threatened migrating fish like shad, which are in trouble along the coast. The majority of people wanted the river back. We could, one hopes, depend on other sources for energy. The river could return as a renewable resource for living things, just as Heman Chase’s woodlot had produced energy to heat his home for many years.
Although I loved the old mill in East Alstead and the nineteenth century progress it represented, I was pleased to see the Kennebec returning to its old form. The key to life, especially within a democracy, is flexibility and change. Removing this old technology was not a condemnation of anything, just a change in what we wanted and what we understood nature in Maine needed for the next century.
Unique now, Edwards is likely to be merely the first of many dams that will be removed. Edwards Dam was a relatively easy decision, because it had ceased to be of much use to Augusta and it was clear that the river had been important for migrating fish, and Maine is now a major tourist state rather than an industrial state. But other dams to follow are likely to cause much more conflict. There is already much talk about removal of bigger dams, including several major ones on the Snake River in Idaho which make ship transportation possible to Lewiston, Idaho.
The danger is that the conflicts will begin with accusations of who is right and what was wrong, rather than discuss them in terms of appropriate progress. It is likely to that conflicts will be posed as pitting needs of nature against needs of people. But as Heman Chase knew, these needs are deeply intertwined. Thoreau understood this when he canoed Maine’s river. When he wrote his famous phrase “In Wildness is the preservation of the World” he followed it with the explanation that this was because from wilderness comes “the tonics and barks that brace mankind,” a poetic way of saying that nature provides what human beings need. It was the contact between nature and human society that so interested Thoreau, and interested my watermill-owning father-in-law. When we recognize this contact and our deep interdependency with nature, we will be able to see the adjustment in where we have dams and what we dam as not a matter of true and false, right and wrong, but as a matter of landscape design that best meets many needs and desires in a world that is always changing. With the removal of Edwards Dam, the heron and the cormorant will fly again along the waters, and we will begin to enjoy nature within a changed society and changed environment. The tolling of the bell was an announcement of progress, not death or decline. We will benefit from this next stage in progress, development that helps nature, ourselves, and our relationship with nature. It is true to the American way, to the ideals of rationality and progress that have made our nation great.
Copyright © Daniel B. Botkin 1999
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