Taking an unprecedented step intended to restore a river to its natural state, the federal government for the first time Tuesday ordered the destruction of a hydroelectric dam against the wishes of its owner.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled that the environmental concerns - among them the spawning needs of salmon, shad and endangered shortnose sturgeon - along the Kennebec River in Maine outweigh the industrial benefits of the electricity-generating, 160-year-old Edwards Dam in Augusta, the state capital.
Although the dam’s owner plans to appeal the order - first to the commission itself and then in federal courts - the decision marks a sharp reversal in federal policy.
For more than a century, Americans have been building dams across their wild and turbulent rivers with an enthusiasm that rivals beavers. Now, at a time of heightened debate over the environmental impact of damming rivers to generate electricity, Tuesday’s decision could have major ramifications across the Western United States, where a newly emboldened movement is taking aim at longstanding hydroelectric dams.
“The decision really changes the way the federal government views river management,” said Margaret Bowman, director of hydropower programs at American Rivers, an environmental group that had been part of a 10-year campaign against the Maine dam. “Federal agencies have viewed dams as permanent structures on the landscape. With this, there is a recognition that dams have a finite life cycle, and when they cause more harm than good, their removal is considered a legitimate and feasible alternative,” she said.
While at least 20 small, nonhydroelectric dams, mostly in Wisconsin and Michigan, have been intentionally destroyed in recent years or are scheduled for destruction, each was dismantled with the acquiescence of its owners.
None has been as large as the Edwards Dam, which is 40 feet high and spans 1,000 feet across one of Maine’s longest rivers. The Kennebec originates in the state’s dark central forests and empties into the Atlantic Ocean, but the dam blocks spawning fish from about 15 miles of it.
The question of removing dams on the great rivers of the West and their tributaries - the Snake, Salmon, and even the Colorado - is part of an intense debate that pits the value of cheap electricity against the inherent and often emotional value of a river as an undisturbed natural resource.
Charles Gauvin, president of Trout Unlimited, said “sea-run fish like salmon have been decimated by dam after dam” in the Northwest and Northeast. Calling the Maine dam “a dinosaur,” Gauvin said its removal will not only “help restore one of Maine’s few remaining native runs of Atlantic salmon, but it sets the stage for the restoration of other rivers where the ecological and economic value of healthy fisheries outweigh the benefits of dams.”
The attention being paid to dams comes as industrialized nations are looking for ways to create energy without burning such fossil fuels as oil and coal, which emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and are widely believed to contribute to global warming.
“Hydroelectric power is clean from the perspective of emissions, but it is not clean from the perspective of what it does to the rivers,” said the Sierra Club’s Daniel Becker. “The dams of the Northwest have decimated the salmon population. They’ve changed the course of rivers.
The Edwards Dam was built in 1837, under a charter granted by the state Legislature, to mechanically turn shafts and other machinery in a cotton mill.
Nearly a century later, electric generators were installed to take advantage of the Kennebec’s hydropower. But in the 1980s, the mill was shut, the factory burned down, and all that remained of the assets of the Edwards Manufacturing Corp. was the dam and its hydroelectric equipment, said Mark Isaacson, the company’s vice president and one of its three full-time employees.
With that, the company shifted its focus, and began selling electricity to the local power grid. It contributes roughly one-tenth of 1 percent of Maine’s electricity.
Isaacson said that under the terms of the decision the company would not be reimbursed for what he said was a $6 million to $10 million investment, but it would be assessed the costs - estimated at $2.5 million to $6 million - of destroying the dam and restoring the river to its natural condition.
Such a decision “is in direct contrast to the Constitution. When you take private property for a public purpose, you get just compensation,” he said.
James J. Hoecker, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which licenses approximately 2,000 hydroelectric dams, said the decision “reflects a balanced view of environmental as well as social and economic considerations.”
The commission said an alternative to tearing down the dam was to build a $10 million diversion to allow fish to travel around the structure. But Atlantic sturgeon, striped bass and rainbow smelt refuse to use such bypasses.