For about a century, hydroelectric power brokers and entrepreneurs eager to service industry and the needs of a budding nation have freely taken rivers away from the fish and other creatures that inhabited them. Now it appears that fish may be getting some rivers, or at least some critical parts of them, back.
A final environmental impact statement prepared at the behest of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has recommended that the commission deny Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. the license required to construct the Basin Mills project on the lower Penobscot River in Maine.
This project would have created a new dam that would have posed serious threats to the effort to restore once-copious runs of Atlantic salmon to the Penobscot. It would also have seriously jeopardized the rights of the Penobscot Indian Nation to pursue fishing for ceremonial purposes.
In a related decision a few months ago, the commission refused to relicense the Edwards Dam, notorious among anglers for the role it played in the last century in destroying the salmon runs on Maine’s Kennebec River.
The repercussions of these determinations may eventually roll across the continent from the piney bogs of northern Maine to the rugged palisades of the mighty Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, where a hot debate is also raging about the value and role of dams and hydroelectric projects such as the Elwa.
“I’m not sure you can say that these decisions by FERC actually set a precedent,” said Bill Townsend, a director of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. “But they certainly signal a real willingness by FERC to adhere in spirit of the 1986 amendments to the Federal Power Act.
“Up until those amendments were made, the official legal attitude seemed to be, ‘When you need to generate power, build a dam and everything else be damned.”’