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Rivers Can Heal–When Given a Chance


The Kennebec River, which drains about one-fifth of the state of Maine, once teemed with fish. Huge numbers of Atlantic salmon, striped bass, alewife, American shad, and five other fish species migrated from the Atlantic Ocean up the Kennebec to spawn (see Maine map). One fishing boat that headed out from Augusta in 1822 reportedly caught 700 shad in a single day. But by 1867 the local shad industry had collapsed. And by the late 20th century, the Kennebec’s fish populations had dwindled to small remnants.

What happened? Pollution, for sure, played a role. But the biggest culprit was the Edwards Dam–a small stone-and-timber structure built in 1837 for hydropower generation that blocked the fish from reaching their spawning grounds. Later on fish ladders were installed to help the finned swimmers bypass the dam, but many of the fish couldn’t or wouldn’t use them.

Upon signing the landmark agreement in 1997 clearing the way for the dam’s removal, then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt heralded a new day, declaring that dam owners and operators needed 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.”

Since then, some 430 outdated dams have been removed from U.S. rivers, opening up habitat for fish and other aquatic organisms and letting rivers flow like rivers again.

And last summer, on the tenth anniversary of the Edwards Dam removal, Augusta residents and conservationists gathered to celebrate the return of astounding numbers of fish to the Kennebec.

Andrew Fahlund, senior vice president for conservation at American Rivers, was on hand that July day in 1999 to witness the rebirth of the Kennebec. American Rivers was one of a small group of organizations that fought for the dam’s removal and continues to fight for many others.

As Andrew describes in his piece for our Lessons from the Field, rivers can heal–when given a chance.

For more information:

American River’s website about the Edwards Dam.

Rivers for Life: Managing Water for People and Nature, by Sandra Postel and Brian Richter.


Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and lead water expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative.  She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”

[This post has been reformatted for Water Currents.]


  1. clarken anderson
    July 17, 2013, 12:05 am

    This is great news! We just need to there are always solutions to everything. We just have to find them.

  2. Eri
    August 21, 2012, 1:48 am

    would you even think that the Everglades environment is not for fiinhsg? The fiinhsg is awesome and never stocked by man, it’s as natural as it gets and is one of the best fisheries in the state of Florida.Great place for all recreational users!

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  5. Victor Kaiser
    July 23, 2010, 10:12 am

    It’s good to know that the government is taking actions on saving and restoring rivers. Let’s take Ogden’s river project for this. Godffrey’s administration is taking the restoration seriously by tying up with Gadi Leshem as its consultant. From there, we can say that river can heal and be healed

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    July 3, 2010, 1:26 am

    American Rivers was one of a small group of organizations that fought for the dam’s removal and continues to fight for many others. This sounds really great and enthusiastic.
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  11. christopher2010
    June 18, 2010, 7:35 am

    I hope that the net impact of this is positive. It’s certainly good for the river, and some old hydroelectric dams are in places where they should never have been built. Still, I hate to see people lash out so strongly against hydro power. It’s probably better for the fish in the long run if we don’t dismantle enough to change our country’s energy use for the worse; pollutants from coal and oil fired plants can be damaging to wildlife, as well.

  12. Turubari Park
    June 17, 2010, 12:09 pm

    This is great news hope that the authorities of Costa Rica can do this with the Rio Grande de Tarcoles (Great River of Tarcoles)

  13. Sagolikt
    June 15, 2010, 6:30 am

    That is actually true and I have the same experience from home. I live just outside London and even it’s more like a stream or a small river, we have together with some companies succeded to give the river a new life.
    It’s really nice to see that we succeeded with this even if we are so close to London. It’s a beautiful sight to see the wild life coming back more and more to the river…

  14. Cincyexoticswildlife
    June 5, 2010, 10:00 pm

    It is good to see that our government has made some good choices. This not only helped the river but the world’s precious and fragile cycles a lot. Thank you to all that helped and lets save some more rivers and animals

  15. Matt
    June 3, 2010, 4:13 pm

    There are old defunct dams everywhere in the U.S. Everyone has an opportunity to help get rid of one near you.

  16. robert_jenkins
    June 2, 2010, 11:56 am

    Chemical pollutants that contaminate our rivers, lakes and seas are dangerous because they serve as endocrine disruptor to acquatic species. In Canada, an entire species of fish in a lake was wiped out because they all turned into females! Chemicals disrupted their development and livelihoods were affected because the supply of fish diminished

  17. Linda
    May 28, 2010, 5:49 am

    Though hydro-power generating is essential, it shouldn’t be the cause for the water species to get dwindled. Well this is certainly a good decision to save under water species. Happy to see the river back as a river!!
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    May 13, 2010, 7:48 pm

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