• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Removing Dams Healing Rivers

Air Date: Week of
Great Works Dam, the first to be removed. (Penobscot River Restoration Trust)

Dams are coming down across the United States, giving new life to river ecosystems. John Catena supervises National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast restoration team. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that dam removal not only clears the way for migrating fish, but also helps improve local communities.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: Earlier this month, members of the Penobscot tribe held a ritual honor dance on the banks of the Penobscot River in Maine. The ceremony helped mark the destruction of the Great Works Dam.

It was built 125 years ago and over time helped turn the Penobscot - the second largest river in New England - into one of the most endangered rivers in the nation. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was on hand as wrecking crews started to take the dam down.

SALAZAR: Alright, so this historic moment on the Penobscot River, this great example for Maine and for the United States of America, has finally come.

GELLERMAN: Dismantling the Great Works Dam is a 62 million dollar project led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. John Catena is NOAA's Northeast Regional Supervisor for Restoration.

CATENA: Well, there’s multiple benefits. Getting fish back up into their grounds where they can reproduce; it’s a basic fact that fish that migrate from the ocean into these rivers need to get to their spawning grounds to reproduce and live out their lifecycle. And so that is the basic benefit of these projects; it's to get these fish back to their spawning grounds, allow them to reproduce, repopulate the rivers.

That leads to a whole cascading effect of feeding other birds that prey on these kinds of fish. Certainly allowing fishermen to get out on the river again, and fish for these species and get back out into the ocean. These fish historically were prey to cod, haddock, bluefish, tuna - any number of different species - and so as we attempt to populate these rivers with these dam removal projects, it has benefits out into the ocean very significantly.

Veazie Dam, lowermost dam on the Penobscot River, will be removed next year. (Penobscot River Restoration Trust)

GELLERMAN: I guess not too long ago there were about thirty one hundred salmon that were making their way down the river.

CATENA: Just last year, in fact. There was a record year for salmon returns. They’re typically on the Penobscot maybe on the order of one thousand to fifteen hundred.

GELLERMAN: And 125 years ago before this dam was built?

CATENA: Well, numbers that are thrown around are about one hundred thousand - do we know that for a fact? You know, it’s tough to say.

GELLERMAN: I understand that on one of the rivers, the Kennebec in Maine, they went from zero alewife, little tiny fish, to three million.

CATENA: Yeah, the Kennebec River is a great success story. The first dam that was removed on that system is the Edwards Dam - came down in 1999. And you’re correct - there were no alewives that were running in that river at the time.

The state of Maine was very aggressive in trying to repopulate that river by stocking - taking alewives from other locations in the state - putting them in those ponds upstream; that allowed to get a jumpstart on the population and the population has just taken off like a rocket, so it’s… we’re now at about three million fish in that river.

Water quality monitoring by the Penobscot Indian Nation's Water Quality Program. (Penobscot River Restoration Trust)

GELLERMAN: I know that, finally, a thousand dams had come down in the United States over the last century.


GELLERMAN: There are like 66,000 dams in the United States!

CATENA: Yeah. It’s been terrific because we’ve really built a lot of momentum. The community that’s interested in dam removal over the last five to ten years really has seen these projects grow tremendously.

There’s been interest on the part of the public, on the part of the Congress, on the part of the Agencies, and it’s not only the benefits that we care about at our agency - that is the fisheries benefits - but oftentimes these are local liabilities to communities, they are safety hazards, they are financial liabilities because they’re in disrepair.

They’ve been sitting there for 100 years, they’re no longer in use now… we’ve talked a lot about the Penobscot, which are hydroelectric facilities, but most of the projects that we work on are old mill dams.

NOAA Fisheries Service Restoration Center, Northeast Region Manager John Catena. (NOAA Fisheries Service)

GELLERMAN: So, where are these dams coming down? East coast, west coast? Middle of the country?

CATENA: Well, it’s really all over the country. My area of focus is in the Northeastern United States - from Maine to Virginia - and because of the number of dams the industrial revolution in our part of the country here - there are just thousands of opportunities. So there is a concentration certainly of dams coming down in the northeast and then I’d say in the Northwestern United States is probably the other hotspot for dam removals.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, last year I guess the biggest dam of all came down - the Elwha Dam.

CATENA: The Elwha dam, right.

GELLERMAN: What’s curious is that, while we’re taking down our dams - or want to take down many of the dams that we have over these many centuries - countries that are developing are building dams - I’m thinking of the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil. And the other dams - they’ve got scores of dams.

Elwha Dam break in Olympic National Park, Washington. (NOAA Fisheries Service)

CATENA: Yeah, China and Brazil in particular are going very strong in looking at hydroelectric production and other uses for dams. And you’re right - our country went through it a long time ago and those countries as a means of development are looking at the same type of issue, and I just hope that they’re taking into account the kind of lessons that we’ve learned here – in taking into account fish passage needs.

GELLERMAN: So, if we have something like 66,000 river dams in the United States, and we’ve only removed 1,000 over the last 100 years - how many dams do you think should come down?

CATENA: (Laughs.) Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t think we’ve quantified that. We are going through an effort to really look throughout our region of the United States - in the Northeast from Maine to Virginia - to identify the most critical rivers for the benefit of the species that we care about and really start working and attacking those priority watersheds.

But it’s certainly in the thousands that need to be coming down to help really get the populations back where they need to be. So this is a long term effort, it’s really just starting, again it’s been in the last five to ten years when things have started to pick up. We took a couple hundred years to make these problems, so it’s going to take some time to resolve them.

GELLERMAN: John Catena is Northeast Regional Supervisor for Restoration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. John, thank you for coming in.

CATENA: Oh, you're welcome. Excellent.



LOE Story Removing Dams in Maine

NOAA on Removing the Great Works Dam


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth