Last week, the last piece of a years-long project to return much of the Penobscot River to a free-flowing waterway was completed with the opening of a bypass around the Howland Dam.
The Penobscot River is Maine’s largest watershed. For more than a century, however, the river was viewed largely as a source of water and power for textile and paper mills. Fishing, especially for Atlantic salmon, was popular along the river until pollution and dams limited their numbers.
More than a decade ago, environmental and angling groups came up with a plan to restore much of the river to its free-flowing heritage. They came up with an innovative project that links conservation, business and energy interests to rebuild habitat on the river while maintaining the production of hydroelectric power. For this reason, the project has been praised — and partially funded — by the federal government. Bangor Daily News publisher Richard J. Warren was the co-chairman of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust’s capital campaign.
A centerpiece of the $60 million project was the removal of two dams, one in Old Town and one in Veazie. The bypass in Howland was built because the dam, and impoundment it created, was important to local residents, primarily for boating and fishing. The height of other dams on the Penobscot and Stillwater rivers was raised to increase hydropower production to make up for the loss of power from the two dams that were removed. The dam removals and bypass reopens nearly 1,000 miles of river to 11 species of fish, including Atlantic salmon, sturgeon and river herring.
Last year, after the dams had been removed, 1,806 shad returned to the river. This year, that total is already at 3,250. On a single day last week, 1,000 shad were counted at the Milford Dam. Shad are popular with anglers because of the fight they put up when caught.
It isn’t just about fish. The National Whitewater Nationals Regatta was held on the Penobscot for the first time last summer. The July event, hosted by the Penobscot Indian Nation, won the American Canoe Association’s Event of the Year award. The regatta is returning to the river July 6-10. The races could be hosted on the Penobscot because of the removal of the dams, which exposed rapids long covered by impounded water.
Last year, regatta participants said how much they liked the venue, not just for the racing but for the access to local hotels and restaurants. Attracting more events like this, including casual paddlers, can add more money to local economies.
Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Indian Nation, said that during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., the Penobscot River Restoration project was held up as a model for restoration projects that will follow across the nation. And he said the role his tribe has been able to play in its success was heartening.
“It’s important that everybody knows … what an uplifting experience it has been for the tribe to be part of a project where we were given a lot of deference and our opinions were valued. The cultural aspects of the Penobscot River were really taken into account,” Francis said. “With this, I really can’t put into words what it means to the tribe that the health and vitality of the river are coming back after the efforts of so many.”
A new business, Explore Bangor, offers kayak rentals and guided kayak tours on the river. The city of Old Town, along with Old Town Canoe and other local partners, offered canoe and kayak trips to entice new visitors to the area and promote use of the river.
The official Penobscot River restoration is now complete. The revitalization of the river is just beginning.