RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Ten years ago today a couple of bulldozers ripped into the Edwards Dam in Augusta, Maine. They freed 17 miles of the Kennebec River, aiming to restore it to its natural state. Skeptics said that wouldn't be possible, but both fish and fishermen are back. And as Maine Public Radio's Susan Sharon reports, the dam has become more famous for its absence than it ever was for its electricity.
SUSAN SHARON: Picture a structure roughly the width of three football fields and two-and-a-half stories tall. That's about how big the Edwards Dam was. Its decommissioning marked a milestone - never before had federal regulators determined that the potential benefits of a free-flowing river outweighed a dam's ability to harness water power.
But at the time not everyone was convinced that tearing down the 162-year-old dam was a good idea.
Mr. GEORGE VILES(ph): We were worried about having a shoreline just full of rambles and brush, a mosquito factory, muck and all of that.
SHARON: George Viles owns property along the Kennebec River, about eight miles north of where the Edwards Dam once stood. He quickly went from being a concerned and skeptical homeowner to an enthusiastic supporter.
Mr. VILES: I had to say I was wrong. It was the cleanliness of the water over time, the freshness, the sounds of the gurgling water as opposed to the big flat impound.
SHARON: Only weeks after the dam's removal, biologists started finding caddisflies, mayflies and dozens of aquatic organisms that had vanished along the river. Within a year, water quality had improved dramatically.
Unidentified Man #1: I got one on.
Unidentified Man #2: All right.
Mr. JEFF REARDON (Trout Unlimited): I got one on.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHARON: Jeff Reardon of the group Trout Unlimited has just landed his first American shad from the Kennebec. Until the dam came down, these fish were not seen this far upriver. Reardon says there are now hundreds of thousands of shad here. Other fish that also disappeared during the Edwards Dam era have come back.
Mr. REARDON: To me, the most remarkable thing is the spring (unintelligible). Seeing a river that has two million fish in it is just phenomenal. I mean, it's like seeing wildebeests on the plains of Africa or bison on the American Great Plains. This is one of the great planetary migrations.
SHARON: But if the case for Kennebec River restoration were being made today, the outcome might be a bit different. Edwards Dam produced 3.5 megawatts of electricity - only enough to power about 3,500 homes. These days, given the nation's desire to reduce its carbon footprint, Fred Air(ph) of the low-impact Hydropower Institute says there is a role for smaller hydroelectric projects to play in the energy mix.
Mr. FRED AIR (Hydropower Institute): I mean, people are putting solar panels in their house. And certainly that's not going to provide electricity for too many people but it's worth doing, and I think this would've been the same way.
SHARON: Air, who worked as a consultant for the owners of Edwards Dam, is now working on a project to restore the Penobscot River in northern Maine. On that waterway, agreements have been reached for a dam removal as well as increased hydro production to balance competing interests. That may become more common as policymakers grapple with the challenge of climate change.
For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon.
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