The River Wild

One of the most ambitious river restorations ever undertaken in the United States is happening on the Penobscot River.

By Virginia M. Wright
Photograph by Paul Rezendes
From our October 2013 issue 
[dropcap letter=”T”]he reporters call John Banks from far-flung places like India, China, and Japan. They want to know how Maine is freeing a river from dams that have devastated eleven species of migrating fish — and, equally important, how it’s doing it without sacrificing one megawatt of hydroelectric power.

“That’s one of the great aspects of the Penobscot River Restoration Project: It is precedent-setting at the international level,” says Banks, director of the Department of Natural Resources for the Penobscot Indian Nation, which nine years ago forged an agreement with conservation organizations, the state and federal governments, and a power company to open one thousand miles of the Penobscot River watershed to endangered Atlantic salmon and other sea-run fish. Banks tells the reporters it was accomplished with vision, persistence, creativity, and a lot of compromises.

For more than 180 years, the Penobscot River has been a fractured river. Pollution has suffocated fish, and hydroelectric dams have blocked their spawning migrations. Now, with the removal of two dams in the Old Town area — the Great Works Dam came out in 2012 and demolition of the Veazie Dam is well under way — one of the most ambitious river restoration projects in the nation is tantalizingly close to completion. The final piece, a year or two away depending on how quickly funds are raised, is an engineered stream bypassing the soon-to-be-decommissioned Howland Dam at the confluence of the Penobscot and Piscataquis rivers.

Meanwhile, Black Bear Hydro, the successor to the power company that hammered out the 2004 agreement with the groups advocating for the dams’ removal, is increasing hydropower generation at five other dams, effectively replacing, if not increasing, all of the power that was lost.

“There were a few times when we thought it might all fall apart,” reflects Laura Rose Day, who represented the Natural Resources Council of Maine during the four-and-a-half years of negotiations over the dams’ fate and is now executive director of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, the organization that is carrying out the project. “Ultimately, we were able to get everyone to look at all of the Penobscot River’s values — energy, paddling, culture, fisheries — and say, how can we maximize all these gifts? The commitment that people had to not always lead with their own interest but to step back and consider the greater common good was key.”

For more than 180 years, the Penobscot River has been a fractured river.

The Penobscot River hosts the largest population of Atlantic salmon in the United States, but that isn’t much to boast about — only twelve hundred or so adult salmon make their way upriver to spawn each spring. “In the early 1800s, before the hydro-electric dams were built, there were runs of one hundred thousand fish,” says Andrew Goode of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, a Maine- and New Brunswick–based organization representing anglers and others interested in river conservation. “There are records of as many as twenty thousand fish being harvested in the Bangor area alone in the early 1800s.”

Salmon fishing, in fact, was one of Bangor’s big attractions well into the twentieth century. Four salmon clubs with thousands of members had lodges on the riverbanks. Members competed with other anglers around the state to land the first salmon of the season and send it on a fast train to the White House, a tradition begun in 1912 when a fisherman named Karl Anderson presented his salmon to President William Howard Taft. The Presidential Salmon tradition ended in the mid-fifties when salmon runs began a precipitous decline. It was revived in the eighties as the sport fishery rebounded thanks to the Clean Water Act and improved fish passages, but the good fishing didn’t last. In 1992, the last Presidential Salmon was presented to George H.W. Bush. Seven years later, salmon fishing on the Penobscot was halted altogether. And in 2009, the federal government listed the Penobscot River salmon as endangered.

Environmentalists attribute the salmon’s decline to a variety of factors — pollution, climate change, and, especially, hydropower dams. “Salmon can use fish passages, but nevertheless, at every dam they take a hit,” Goode explains. “You could write the same story for river herring, sturgeon, bass, and any other fish that needs to be in fresh water for part of its life, but salmon are the most vulnerable. Unlike sturgeon that spawn in the lower river, spawning salmon have to go way up into the headwaters where there is cool water and gravel. And unlike a twelve-inch alewife, which has millions of eggs, a thirty-six-inch female salmon has only about eight thousand eggs. The salmon barely maintains its population in the right setting. It’s the canary in the coal mine, the warning signal that something is not right.”

The Penobscot Indians saw the warnings long before the contentious battles that came to define hydropower dam building and relicensing efforts in the 1980s and 1990s. “I often tell people that we have been involved in the restoration of the Penobscot River since the industrial revolution,” John Banks says. “There are records of tribal members traveling to Boston in the 1700s, when Maine was part of Massachusetts, to complain about the impact of sawmills and gristmills on our fisheries.”

Headquartered at Indian Island, the Penobscot reservation (population 610) strings narrowly along the river from Old Town to East Millinocket, but the tribe once ranged the full length and breadth of the river’s watershed, from its four branches in north-central Maine all the way to Penobscot Bay in Bucksport. “The river provided our means of survival for ten thousand to twelve thousand years,” Banks says. “It provided the means to get wherever we needed to go to get the materials we needed to survive — food, medicine, shelter — and to carry on commerce with neighboring tribes. We’ve grown and evolved along with the river. It’s part of us.”

The Penobscots’ ties to the river in the form of treaty reserve fishing rights were brought to bear on Bangor Hydro Electric Company’s effort to build a thirty-eight-megawatt dam at Basin Mills in Orono in 1984. The proposal weathered fourteen years of challenges from the tribe and conservation groups and was ultimately rejected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which determined the dam would hamper efforts by the Penobscots and the federal and state governments to restore fish runs. Significantly, the decision came on the heels of FERC’s history-making refusal to relicense the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Augusta, the first time ever that FERC ruled the environmental benefits of a dam’s removal outweighed its economic and energy-generating benefits.

It wasn’t a full victory for the Basin Mills Dam opponents, however, as Bangor Hydro’s Veazie and Milford dams were relicensed without improved fish passages. “Basically, nobody won,” says Laura Rose Day. “After all that time and all those resources, the ball wasn’t any farther down the field.”

[I]t was against this backdrop in 1999 that Pennsylvania-based PPL Corporation purchased Bangor Hydro’s hydropower facilities on the lower Penobscot — the Veazie, Orono, Milford, Stillwater, Howland, West Enfield, and Medway dams — as well as Georgia-Pacific’s Great Works Dam. PPL retained Bangor Hydro’s local staff, Scott Hall and Richard Fennelly. With more dams up for relicensing, Hall and Fennelly were eager to avoid another long, divisive battle, so they initiated a conversation about the dams’ future with the Penobscots, who in turn invited to the table their allies from the Basin Mills proceedings — the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Trout Unlimited, American Rivers, and Maine Audubon.

“We tried to understand their interests from a fisheries standpoint,” Fennelly told Mainebiz in 2012, “and they tried to understand our interests from a business standpoint.” (Neither Fennelly, now Black Bear Hydro’s vice president of generating and business assets, or Hall, Black Bear’s vice president of environmental and business services, were available for an interview with Down East. Black Bear purchased PPL’s hydroelectric facilities in 2009.)

None of it was easy, according to Day. “There were many times when it was not clear that we would be able to arrive at a deal, and times where there were months when we had no negotiations at all,” she says. But after two years, the parties agreed on a broad concept: PPL would consider parting with some of its hydro facilities if the conservation organizations would accept raising water levels to increase power generation elsewhere. The next two years were focused on the details, with state and federal agencies joining the negotiations.

“I often tell people that we have been involved in the restoration of the Penobscot River since the industrial revolution.” — John Banks

In June 2004, nearly five years after it extended its olive branch to the Penobscots, PPL agreed to sell the Veazie, Great Works, and Howland dams for $24 million to the stakeholders, now partnered as the Penobscot River Restoration Trust. In exchange, the trust members promised not to fight the company’s efforts to relicense and increase hydropower generation at its other dams, including three in the Indian Island area: the Milford Dam on the Penobscot, and the Orono and Stillwater dams on an eleven-mile back channel, the Stillwater River.

Everyone sacrificed. PPL, which had come to the table determined to keep all of its assets, sold three lucrative hydropower facilities and committed to building expensive fish passages at others. Some of the conservation partners relented on making the removal of Orono Dam part of the deal. The Penobscots agreed not to press their rights under the Federal Power Act in the relicensing of Milford Dam, thus relaxing the requirements for the fishway to be built there.

“It’s a win-win,” Day says. “There’s something for everyone to love and something for everyone to argue about here.”

Since then, the trust has been focused on bringing the $62 million project to fruition, working its way down a dizzying to-do list that includes raising funds, smoothing the way for dam demolitions with local governments and residents, and coordinating with partners like  the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which paid for the Great Works Dam removal under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The trust gained a member in The Nature Conservancy, a global organization with access to funders who care about environmental issues and a staff of scientists and skilled negotiators. Meanwhile, other member organizations carried out projects on the Penobscot’s tributaries. The Atlantic Salmon Federation, for example, has been removing small dams — relics of the lumbering and gristmill era — and building fishways. Maine Audubon is improving road culverts at stream crossings.

“The power of this project lies in how these different parties have stepped up with their strengths when needed,” says Day. “The follow-through is everything. Otherwise, you just have a thick set of papers that a lot of lawyers put together.”

[I]n just a few years, the Penobscot River will be transformed. “I’ve already seen a river come back before my own eyes: Just a day or two after the Edwards Dam came out, we had sturgeon swimming up the Kennebec River,” says Laura Rose Day. “The fish know what to do.”

As early as next spring, non-leaping fish that have been nosing at the Veazie Dam — Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon, tomcod, American eels, and striped bass — are expected to swim to their historic spawning grounds near Milford Dam, where historically their range was bound by a set of natural falls. Likewise, the state’s 2010 stocking of Eddington’s Chemo Pond with alewives will begin to bear fruit as their now-mature offspring swim up from the sea, teeming past Veazie and into Blackman Stream to produce spawn of their own. Their numbers, says Andrew Goode, could swell to more than one hundred thousand by 2016 and eventually build to half a million.

“The follow-through is everything. Otherwise, you just have a thick set of papers that a lot of lawyers put together.” — Laura Rose Day

Swimming upriver in the company of adult salmon and shad, the masses of alewives and blueback herring will lure predators like cormorants, gulls, ospreys, and bald eagles, thus offering protection to what by then could number thousands of young Atlantic salmon smolts making their first journey downstream to the sea. The smolts will swim freely past Howland, Great Works, and Veazie, where turbines would have chopped them up in large numbers in the past. A few months later, the river herrings’ young, too, will make for the Atlantic, where they’ll feed cod, haddock, hake, and halibut, raising hopes for revitalization of the ailing groundfishing industry.

“This river will be close to its natural state,” says Penobscot tribal member Scott Phillips, a designated ambassador for the restoration project. A wholesaler of paddle sports equipment, Phillips envisions a recreation industry blossoming along the river now that canoeists and kayakers can paddle from Old Town to the sea without having to portage their boats. “People will start using the river because it will be free-flowing, and there will be some whitewater so it will be exciting,” Phillips says.  “I can see outfitters setting up operations to rent boats or guide people down the river. In spring, when the water is really high, you might even have people taking raft trips.”

The big lesson of the Penobscot project, Laura Rose Day cautions, is not found in the details of balancing dam removal with energy production. “There will be a different solution for each place,” she says. “It’s how we looked at this individual situation and came up with the most creative approach — that collaboration — that is the model. It’s not just reaching an agreement, but sticking with an implementation strategy for a decade. If you can continue working together and live by your commitments, that’s when you make a change on the face of the earth.”