Read The Founding Fish Online

Authors: John McPhee

The Founding Fish (9 page)

Prodded by activists' lawyers, the commission soon developed what amounted to a retroactive statement of environmental impact. Edwards Dam had been making electricity since 1913—lately, 3.5 megawatts, scarcely enough to light the warehouse at L.L. Bean. The license was up for renewal. Since “needed and appropriate” fishways would cost three times as much as removing the dam—and the power it produced was hardly a redeeming factor—the commission ordered the Edwards Manufacturing Company to shut down its turbines, deconstruct the dam, and restore to a natural, free-flowing state the public waterway the company had used for profit.
This was the first big dam in a major river to be ordered out of existence by the federal government while the owner was left holding a wet application. In a national way, the Tree-Free Parking Lot was full of people who hoped for more, manifestly including
Rebecca Wodder and Margaret Bowman, of American Rivers, who would afterward raise glasses of champagne in celebration of “the new era of dam removal”; Amos Eno, of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; Todd Ambs, of the River Alliance of Wisconsin; Mike Lopushinsky, of New York Rivers United; and—from Arizona—Pam Hyde, of Glen Canyon Institute, dedicated to the breaching of Glen Canyon Dam in the Colorado River. They sat on folding chairs as if on a ship's deck for a formal surrender. For the victors, this was Yorktown, Cornwallis sulking in his tent. It was not a great moment for the National Hydropower Association, despite its reminders that eleven per cent of the national energy pool keeps three hundred and thirty-five million tons of carbon dioxide out of the air. It was not a great moment for wistful Augustans, lining the riverbank, who remembered the water-powered mills that had nurtured their town. Dieter Bradbury, of the Portland
Press Herald
, later wrote that he had seen “part of Augusta's rich industrial heritage slowly drain into the Atlantic.”
To some environmentalists, hydropower seemed cleaner than the ultimate deal by which the cost of removal was effected. The owner's way out was to give the dam to the State of Maine. The state's way out was a many-back scratcher in which the Bath Iron Works, thirty miles down the Kennebec, and a consortium of hydropower stations up the Kennebec jointly provided more than seven million dollars—or enough to eradicate the dam with four million left over for restoration programs involving fish.
Bath Iron Works. If the Kennebec was historically rich in salmon, sturgeon, and shad, it was no less so in ships. The first was built in 1607. In the forty miles of the tidal river, thousands followed. The Hesperus, wrecked multiguously by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was built in Pittston, on the freshwater Kennebec. Bath was once the fourth-largest seaport in the United States. The Bath Iron Works carried the tradition from the age of sail into the age of steel, and continues to build destroyers for the United
States Navy. Exasperated with the inefficiencies of building new hulls on inclined ground, the shipyard desired to fill in seventeen acres of the Kennebec and build new drydocks. With the concurrence of the State of Maine and the Kennebec Coalition of environmental groups, the Iron Works contributed two and a half million to the razing of Edwards Dam, and, unopposed by environmentalists, went on to build the drydocks. The Kennebec Hydro Developers Group added nearly five million to help see Edwards gone. Their reward would be postponements of up to fifteen years in the requirement to install fish passages at their dams. Jonathan Carter, who once was a Green Party candidate for governor of Maine and had become the executive director of the Forest Ecology Network, told the Kennebec
Journal
, “By following the money trail and the inside dealing, the hoopla becomes clouded by sellouts, buyouts, and trade-offs, which set very dangerous precedents.”
Maine's first governor (1820) was William King, a Kennebec shipbuilder, and also farmer, miller, sawyer, storekeeper, banker. A French traveller mistook him for an authentic king (according to the Kennebec poet Robert P. Tristram Coffin). In any case, King was known for being “as independent as a hog on ice.” This set of facts seemed to cluster about Maine's incumbent governor—the Independent Angus King—as he rose to speak in the Tree-Free Parking Lot. He had tousled hair. He had a sandy mustache, medical in nature, and he wore a red-and-gold tie covered with blue fish. Having secured seven million dollars for the cause, he now lifted things to a loftier stratum than the lubricated trade-offs in his Kennebec River Comprehensive Hydropower Settlement Accord. Speaking without notes, he mentioned POP. He defined POP. He described the promise of its cybertronic effects in connecting entire communities to the World Wide Web, and he said that POP would be to the twenty-first century what the community dam had been to the nineteenth. It was time for the dam to go.
A year earlier, a short way downstream on the same riverbank, Bruce Babbitt, the Secretary of the Interior, had said, “This is not a call to remove all, most, or even many dams. But this is a challenge to dam owners and operators to defend themselves, to demonstrate by hard facts, not by sentiment or myth, that the continued operation of a dam is in the public interest economically and environmentally.” In the months that followed, the ancestral truism “As Maine goes, so goes the nation” was frequently invoked by people proclaiming a new national momentum in sentiment toward removal of dams. And now, in an open-collar faded-brick Madras shirt, Bruce Babbitt looked across the crowd before him and counted the television cameras. He remarked on the considerable number of reporters, who had travelled from cities in four time zones. “They're not coming just to celebrate good news,” he said. “I'm here to tell you, that's not what the American press is about. Reporters are here because they know this is the beginning of something that is going to affect the entire nation. It's a manifestation of who we are: neighbors living in a democracy. Before the Clean Water Act of 1972, the river was so polluted that it turned buildings black and literally peeled the paint off the walls. For healthy rivers and fisheries, the removal sets an important precedent. You're going to look back in years hence and say, ‘It all began right here on this riverbank.'” Later in the day, Babbitt waxed almost Biblical, adding, “It's about coming together to restore the waters, recognizing that the rivers in turn have the power to restore our communities.”
Begging his pardon, but from where I was sitting it all seemed to be about fish. Another speaker—among ten or so before and after King and Babbitt—spoke with reverence of a deceased state legislator who had helped lead the cause against the dam: “Wherever he is, I hope he's hooked to an Atlantic salmon on a fly rod somewhere,” said the speaker, as if the purpose of destroying the dam was not so much to benefit as to barb fish. An economic study
that might have been carried forward by a day trader had determined that forty-eight million dollars would be brought to the river by sport fishermen soon after the dam was gone. In the eighteenth century, Kennebec salmon were so abundant that farmers hiring help typically had to promise not to feed them salmon more than once a day. And now the eighteenth century—POP!—was coming back to the river.
Lewis Flagg, who was in the crowd, had told me that he expected as many as seven hundred and twenty-five thousand shad to be spawning north of Augusta in fifteen years or so. Flagg was the director of the Stock Enhancement Division of Maine's Department of Marine Resources. He enumerated the biological advantages of removing a dam—any dam. (1) It gets rid of obstructions to migration. (2) It restores natural habitat. (3) The river resumes the natural variations of its flow. (4) The siltation of spawning and feeding habitat ceases in what had been the impounded pool. (5) It gets rid of debris. (6) It gets rid of unnatural temperatures downstream. (7) It removes turbines that kill juvenile fish. Unless you're a stocked trout in the cold water downstream from a dam in Arkansas, the rationale for dam removal is quite compelling from a fish's point of view.
Schools of striped bass had been seen by construction workers nosing up to Edwards Dam that morning. A big Atlantic salmon broached and—two feet out of water—just hung there, watching. A high-school bell was mounted on a post near the microphones, and Babbitt, King, and others—on schedule with the speeches and the downstream recession of the morning tide—began to ring it. And ring it. Evan Richert, of the Maine State Planning Office, shouted into the microphones, “Set the fishery free!” He did not say, “Set free the river!”
On the cofferdam near the west bank sat Reggie Barnes, of Alton, Maine, at the levers of a Caterpillar 345 backhoe with a twoand-a-half-yard bucket and a thirty-nine-foot ground-level reach.
Even from across the river, it looked Cretaceous, its head above the trees. Facing east, it swung right, and it bit a few tons of gravel. After swinging farther to the right and dropping the load, it went back for more. It was eating the cofferdam. It ate from south to north, toward the restrained water. Swing left. Bite. Swing right. Drop. Swing left. Bite. The machine was opening a chasm, and the north end of the chasm was becoming a pillar of gravel separating air from water. Bite. The pillar thinned. Frankly, I had not imagined this moment in history to be dramatic—the engineering was so extensive, monumental, and controlled. I mean, a Stuka wasn't dropping one on the crest and flying off to Frankfurt. But this backhoe, positioned on the very structure it was consuming—swinging to and fro on the inboard end of the cofferdam—was hypnotizing a thousand people. It hadn't far to go. The bucket had not reached water before water reached the bucket. From a thousand feet away, even through binoculars, not much could be seen yet but occasional splashes in motion, south. They were occasional enough to cause Reggie Barnes to roll his treads and get the big backhoe out of there, fast. It scooted off the cofferdam and partway up a hill. A bottle of champagne had been cracked on the bucket before it all began, and now from beneath a mass of hard hats came a cheer that might have been audible in Portland. While the hard hats watched and the Nature Conservancy watched with the leaders of American Rivers, the licks and splashes increased in frequency and height above the cofferdam, which was now being eaten by the Kennebec River.
Rapidly, it widened and deepened its advantage. It became a chocolate torrent. It shot through the gap in the western end of the dam itself and smashed into the foundation wall of the gatehouse, once the entry to the power canal. The foundation wall of the gatehouse consisted of very large blocks of granite. The liberated currents caromed off it and angled into the lower river. A milky brown plume spread through the clear water there and
nearly reached the eastern shore, a thousand feet away. In eight minutes, the Kennebec, completely in charge of everything now, melted down the cofferdam until a channel had opened seventy feet wide. The rage of high water seemed to fly through the air before hitting the granite wall and exploding back into the river. In the Tree-Free Parking Lot, the assembled phalanges of the environmental movement were standing as one, standing on their chairs for a line of sight through a forest of elbows apexed with binoculars, framing Babbitt on a cell phone before the frothing river. The volume of the rapids grew. After the initial blowout of sediments, the thundering water turned white and the slicks were cordovan glass. The Kennebec River in Augusta, after a hundred and sixty-two years in the slammer, was walking.
A
nd twelve days thereafter, in the Old Town canoe about halfway from Waterville to Augusta, we passed a concrete boat launch that had launched its last boat. Its lower lip was many yards back from the river and much higher than the surface of the water. Broad shingle flats had become exposed here and there, but mainly the banks of the river were so steep that evidence of the breaching was confined to the two sides. Small, hanging streams and small, hanging falls were cutting fresh canyons to the river. A kingbird went over us, a bald eagle, a cedar waxwing. A cormorant swam past us, and two beavers off the left bank slapped and disappeared. Standing high in the river now like stockade towers were the rock-filled cribs of the log drives. Made from trees with a hundred and twenty rings, they disciplined the flow of logs. This stretch of river had a parklike appearance, with no structures but these emblems of the history of Maine. An island, high and elongate, sat up like a warship on its hull of rock, with twenty-three towers leading to it and five away from its downstream end. When dams are built, the complaints of inundated communities gradually gurgle into silence,
and when dams are destroyed—evidently—complaints in fresh demeanor come to life. An ecosystem sixteen decades old was being destroyed, no matter that it was significantly man-made. Seriously threatened were the yellow lampmussel and the tidewater mucket. On the day of the breaching of the dam, volunteers from Nokomis High School worked feverishly all afternoon moving mussels and muckets from mudbanks to deep water while baby lampreys squirmed in the muck around them. In the absence of Edwards Dam, some people thought, carp and other untouchable species might get into tributary streams. When the State of Maine proposed building a small dam in a tributary to block the carp, letters to editors shouted ironic derision. A citizen of Augusta called the Edwards Dam breaching the “blunder of the century.” Noting that the damsite was actually a fine place for a much higher dam and more hydroelectric power, another writer ridiculed a government “pushed by environmental wackos.” In less than a year, in the spring of the next migration, fishermen would be catching five-pound shad in the Kennebec above Augusta.
Dams are said to last, on average, about fifty years. At the time, one of four American dams was that old and eighty-five per cent would be by 2020. In the state of Washington, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission told Condit Dam on the White Salmon River that fishlifts would soon be required. Condit is four hundred and seventy-one feet long and a hundred and twenty-three feet high. Removing the dam is cheaper than installing fishlifts. The owner agreed to remove it in 2006. On the Elwha River, where two dams also block salmon, the government has bought the dams in order to remove them. The Army Corps of Engineers is weighing the fate of four dams on the Snake River. They date from the nineteen-sixties and seventies, they are half to three-quarters of a mile wide, they irrigate thirty-six thousand acres, and they make enough power to light Seattle. From Pasco, Washington, to Lewiston, Idaho, they block a hundred and forty miles of
river, and the price of their removal is a billion dollars. Nonetheless, if all methods of assisting fish migrations fail—if the salmon population continues to decline—the four dams may be removed. The Corps of Engineers, like any bureaucratic agency, has no higher agendum than its own survival. It can survive as well removing dams as building them.

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