Twelve years ago — on July 1, 1999 — a crowd gathered on the banks of the Kennebec River in Augusta to watch as Edwards Dam was breached. First a trickle. Then a torrent.

For the first time in 162 years, a 17-mile stretch of the Kennebec was open to sea-run fish species.

Some who closely watched that event — and the rapid transformation of the ecosystem on that stretch of the Kennebec — expect similar results when the Penobscot River Restoration Project removes two dams and builds a fish bypass at a third.

The first of those removals will begin on Monday, when a large crowd is expected to celebrate the process of dismantling 1,000-foot-long Great Works Dam in Bradley.

“[The Edwards Dam removal and the Penobscot River Restoration Project] are comparable, and [the rivers] have the same suite of species,” said Andrew Goode, vice president of U.S. programs for the Atlantic Salmon Federation. The federation is one of the groups that collaborated to get the Penobscot project off the ground and also was involved in the Edwards Dam removal.

“I think the Kennebec just gives you a smaller version of the Penobscot project. So the Kennebec Coalition and the Edwards Dam removal is just a teaser for what the Penobscot project can be, if it reaches its full potential,” Goode said.

If that proves true, Penobscot watchers are in for quite a show over the coming years.

After the Edwards Dam was removed and other work was done on the Kennebec drainage, that project set the stage for a major resurgence of alewives and Atlantic shad. Goode said that today, there’s a run of 2.8 million alewives in the Sebasticook River each year. And the shad have returned in healthy numbers as well. The Sebasticook connects with the Kennebec River in Winslow.

Nick Bennett, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which also was involved with both the Edwards Dam and Penobscot projects, said the shad returns have been staggering.

“This [year], my really enthusiastic fishing friends on the Kennebec have been telling me how amazing the shad fishing is,” Bennett said. “They’re plentiful for the first time in generations. So I would expect shad to come back to the Penobscot, too.”

According to Amy Kober of American Rivers, also a member of the Kennebec Coalition, the Edwards Dam removal served as a catalyst in the state. Since that 917-foot-long barrier was removed, another 18 dams have been taken down. Only six had been removed before 1999.

And nationally, that trend is also apparent. According to American Rivers, 1,111 dams have been removed over the past 100 years. Of those removals, more than half have taken place since 1999 — the year the Edwards Dam was removed.

A key difference in the two projects, according to Goode, is the fact that on the Kennebec, where Atlantic salmon runs historically have been much lighter than on the Penobscot, that species was not a key factor in planning. On the Penobscot, which at times has been well-regarded as a salmon river, that’s not the case. And although a cross-species approach has been taken, the river’s salmon — which now have recognition as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act — are a fish that’s being scrutinized more closely by many.

“The Penobscot [project] was designed, is designed, to restore not only the river herring, but also the Atlantic salmon, [along with] all the species,” Goode said. “Edwards benefitted what we refer to as the lower river species: the sturgeon, the rainbow smelt, the striped bass, some river herring. The Penobscot [project] is designed to restore the lower river species, but also the upper river species, like in particular, the Atlantic salmon.”

And while many observers pay close attention to the rivers themselves, much of the benefits can’t be seen until you look into the sky: Both Goode and Bennett say the resurgence of ospreys and bald eagles on the Kennebec and Sebasticook have been striking.

Bennett said that at first, after the Edwards Dam was removed, he thought he was just looking at the river in a different way and was noticing plentiful ospreys that always had been there. Eventually, he realized that the millions of alewives had provided those birds of prey with an abundant food source they had been missing … and more birds were present.

“It’s not just restoring some fish here,” Goode said, talking about both the Kennebec and the Penobscot projects. “It’s restoring some of the lost ecological connections in the river. First, we’ve seen the rebuilding of the herring run. And now we’ve seen the building of the eagle and osprey populations.”

Elizabeth Maclin, vice president for eastern conservation for Trout Unlimited, said the results that were observed on the Kennebec after the contentious fight over Edwards Dam have been heartening for Trout Unlimited members. And she said those successes will serve as a harbinger for success on the Penobscot.

“As we begin a new era on the Penobscot, Trout Unlimited members who fought for the removal of the Edwards Dam over a decade ago will be enjoying the fruits of their labors in the form of restored fish on the Kennebec,” Maclin said in an email. “They’ll be catching shad in Waterville, watching ospreys and eagles fight over a run of 3 million river herring, and counting salmon fry as they emerge from planted eggs in a unique restoration effort on a Kennebec tributary.”

Both Goode and Bennett said that another key difference between the Kennebec and Penobscot projects is this: Penobscot project managers have made certain to gather key baseline scientific data before the dams come out and will compare that with data that will be gathered over the coming years.

On the Kennebec, that wasn’t done.

“There was just no way [to do the studies] just because of the manner in which the Edwards project unfolded,” Bennett said. “It wasn’t a project where we were working with a friendly dam owner for over a decade [as is the case on the Penobscot], where we had time to line up scientists and look at all the things they’re looking at in the Penobscot.”

Goode said raising money for restoration projects is always a challenge and the fact that scientific monitoring wasn’t done on the Kennebec is a regret that many share.

“You just struggle every day to just try to get the money to take the dams out, and it’s so hard to come up with the extra money to do the baseline monitoring,” Goode said. “In this case [on the Penobscot] we have done that. Everything from insects to mussels to birds to fish, water temperature, water quality, all of that stuff, we have that baseline information that will be tracked over time.”

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John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...