September 18, 2011

Penobscot plan may influence dams elsewhere

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

GREENBUSH -- Ian Kiraly gently nudges the bow of an alien-like vessel along the banks of the Penobscot River. The electro boat, with its cathode tentacles dangling in the water, delivers 600 to 800 volts of electric current, stunning any fish in the "shock zone," a 100-square-foot area that runs 8 feet deep.

Two of his assistants scoop up immobilized fish and drop them into a holding tank in the center of the boat. Kiraly tallies them -- chain pickerel, smallmouth bass, fallfish, white sucker, common shiner minnow -- before releasing them.

It's a typical catch here, 11 miles north of Orono and upstream of the three dams that stand between this portion of the river and the sea.

Since he began the study in the spring of 2010 as part of his graduate work at the University of Maine, Kiraly hasn't caught any shad, alewives, blueback herring or striped bass.

That could change by the spring of 2014, after two of the dams are removed and a state-of-the-art fish lift is installed at the third.

"I'm really curious about what happens when the dams come out, for sure," he said.

So are a lot of other people.

The river restoration effort is among the most ambitious and complex ever attempted, and it's already apparent that it could affect rivers far from Maine.

Unprecedented research

The amount of scientific work being down on Maine's largest river is unprecedented.

The research eventually will be used to evaluate dam removal options elsewhere, said Charlie Baeder, who is coordinating the research for the Penobscot River Restoration Trust.

No similar research was done before the 1999 removal of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Augusta. As a result, he said, it's difficult to document the effect the dam's removal had on the environment.

In another respect, the restoration project is widely viewed as a model for how environmentalists, hydropower companies, native tribes and state and federal agencies can benefit when they reach agreements that cover an entire river system, rather than fighting one another, one dam at a time, said Jeff Opperman, a senior adviser on sustainable hydropower for The Nature Conservancy.

A groundbreaking agreement reached in 2004 allowed the Penobscot River Restoration Trust to buy three dams from the PPL Corp. and plan to remove two of them: Veazie and Great Works.

State fisheries managers this summer already are taking steps in anticipation of the removals. Thousands of juvenile alewives have been released in ponds upstream from the dams.

The alewives will swim downstream through existing passages in the dams and spend the next few years in the ocean. In five years, when the females make the more difficult trip up the Penobscot River to spawn, the dams will be gone.

Yet while the public focus is on dam removal, the project is also an example of how to build new hydroelectric dams properly, Opperman said.

Developing nations around the world are building dams aggressively to produce energy for their growing populations, and environmental groups have little power stop them, Opperman said. The Penobscot restoration project shows that it's possible to build dams and preserve sea-run fish access to rivers.

When he works abroad in countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Costa Rica, Opperman often points to the Penobscot River as an example of both failure and success.

Sea-run fish returning

When the river's dams were built in the 1800s, Opperman said, the builders never thought about balancing energy production and habitat by taking a view of the entire river basin. As a result, the river has experienced massive declines in populations of sea-run fish such as salmon.

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