Kennebec River, Maine

On July 1, 1999, the 25-foot tall and 917-foot wide Edwards Dam was removed from Maine’s Kennebec River after more than 100 years. This project established the authority of federal organizations to order the removal of obsolete dams in order to restore significant river ecosystems. Furthermore, it not only restored habitat for aquatic organisms, it also eliminated a public safety hazard and allowed the river and the surrounding ecosystems to return to a more natural state.

The Story

A rush of water surged through Edwards Dam as the Kennebec was freed on July 1, 1999
A rush of water surged through Edwards Dam as
the Kennebec was freed on July 1, 1999

The Kennebec River flows more than 100 miles through the heart of Maine, from Moosehead Lake, located in the Longfellow Mountains, past Augusta and into the Atlantic Ocean. Prior to the construction of Edwards Dam, the Kennebec provided extensive habitat for ten species of migratory fish, including Atlantic salmon, American shad, shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon, striped bass and several species of herring and alewife. However, when the dam was constructed in 1837 to provide energy to the surrounding area and allow easy navigation of upstream waters, fish populations slowly declined and the river’s health began to worsen.

By the mid-19th Century, Edwards Dam was only contributing one tenth of a percent to Maine’s total annual power needs. With its license expiring in 1999, an opportunity arose to remove the obsolete dam and restore the river. American Rivers, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Atlantic Salmon Federation and Trout Unlimited formed the “Kennebec Coalition,” which successfully advocated for the removal of Edwards Dam and restoration of the Kennebec River.

In 1997, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission denied the dam owner’s hydropower relicensing permit due to the negative impacts it was having on the river’s health. This was the first time the federal government determined that the ecological, economic and community benefits of a free flowing river outweighed the benefit of a limited amount of hydropower production, and set a precedent to remove dams that do more harm than good. With approval in hand, the dam was removed on July 1, 1999.

Dam Removal Benefits

  • Reconnected 17 miles of the Kennebec River with the ocean for the first time in more than 160 years
  • Populations of migratory fish returned to the river to spawn after years of restricted access to habitat upstream of Edwards Dam— more than two million alewife returned to the Kennebec River, making it the largest migration on the Eastern seaboard
  • Improved recreational activities, including the construction of a boat launch and the creation of a wooded riverfront nature trail
  • Lush vegetation filled in along the newly emerged river banks
  • People freely recreate on the river without fear of the safety hazard posed by the dam
  • Other life has greatly benefitted from restoration of the river, including birds, such as osprey and eagles, and large mammals, such as black bears; mayfly and stonefly populations have increased with the improvements in water quality
Edwards Dam, 1999
Edwards Dam, 2016

The removal of Edwards Dam not only restored the Kennebec River, but it marked a significant milestone in the river restoration and dam removal movement in America. It was the first time that the government ordered the removal of a dam solely for the purpose of restoring river health and local fisheries, declaring that these benefits outweighed the hydropower functions of the dam. Although not the first dam removal in the United States, the story of Edwards Dam brought the benefits of a free flowing river to the attention of people from different backgrounds, inspiring restoration and dam removals on rivers around the world.

Brian Graber | American Rivers |