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The Kennebec River is finally healing

With its pronounced natural beauty, proximity to a number of landmarks, and rich history, the Kennebec River is one of Maine’s most remarkable rivers. The Kennebec has never failed to be monumental. It is the lifeblood of neighboring cities, the site of tide-turning battles, and a symbol of industry and natural beauty.

For a long time, however, it was also known for its unclean and horribly foul waters. The river’s pollution was the product of rampant sewage dumping and industrial pollution from the notorious Edwards Dam, built in Augusta to provide power to the paper mills in Winslow, Skowhegan, Anson, and other riverside cities.

Prior to the installation of the Edwards Dam, the Kennebec River was a keystone of the local ecosystem. It served as the spawning grounds for a number of anadromous— or migrating— fish, such as bass, shad, alewife, sturgeon, and salmon. Many of these are local Maine favorites and the backbone of the regional fishing industry.

Shortly after the dam was built, the local fish population began to dwindle, as did the success of the fishing communities that so dearly depended on the industry. Within a few decades, the population of anadromous fish had all but disappeared from the Kennebec.

Adding insult to injury, the paper mills powered by the dam released large amounts of harmful chemical waste— most notably dioxins, a highly poisonous and carcinogenic class of chemicals— into the Kennebec. These dioxins killed many of the fish, and those that survived  were rendered completely unsafe for human consumption, jeopardizing the future of communities along the river.

Additionally, waste processing facilities, paper mills, and industrial plants continuously dumped municipal wastewater into the Kennebec, further damaging the local ecosystem for decades to come.

Maine Rivers is a non-profit devoted to environmental remediation and preservation of Maine’s aquatic wildlife. In its mission statement and call to action, Maine Rivers explains the effects of pollution on biodiversity.

“The first casualties were the whales, followed by the loss of the once-great runs of Atlantic salmon and alewives. The triple whammy of water pollution, over-harvesting, and the construction of impassable dams was the death knell for the formerly vast runs of fish that had occupied the Kennebec River,” it reads.

Hope was not lost for the Kennebec, however. In 1993, upon the expiration of the

Edwards Dam’s license and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s refusal to renew it after evaluating the dam’s environmental impact, the dam was demolished.

Efforts at environmental remediation were promptly deployed to address the years of deep-seated damage that the egregious mistreatment of the Kennebec had suffered, and, only a decade later, the river has already begun to heal from its century of abuse.

In an interview with The Colby Echo, longtime Maine resident and host of the Maine Alewife Festival Antoine Morin described how the Kennebec began to return to its former glory after the dam’s destruction.

“I was born in Maine, and I’ve lived along the waters of the Kennebec my entire life, and I’ve seen how much it has changed over the years,” Morin said.

“When I was a child, my brothers and I used to go down to the Kennebec and look at the waste matter and sanitary products that flowed in its fishless waters, taking care not to go too close to the water itself. I remember how seeing a bald eagle— or any bird for that matter— above the Kennebec was a sure sign of good luck as well as how fish were virtually nonexistent. Now, after the dam was removed, it’s almost boring to see a bald eagle! All of the fish that we previously thought were gone have also returned too. It’s totally unprecedented,” Morin said.

Even though the Kennebec is on a rapid road towards recovery, Morin believes that more work is still necessary, a sentiment shared by many who feel connected to Maine’s natural beauty.

“Removing the Edwards Dam was a massively important first step. To truly nurse the Kennebec back to health, however, we need to reevaluate the way we treat the river,” Morin said.

Morin then suggested several opportunities for improvement.

“For example,” he said, “we let the salinity of the Kennebec’s waters rise after the salt that we put down in the winter gradually leaches into the river. Also, there are still many small dams that still stand and block spawning grounds and estuaries. Finally, there still hasn’t been an investment made to install a fish ladder in the major hydroelectric power plants.”

In its mission statement, Maine Rivers explained that while “the removal of the Edwards Dam in 1999 poses an opportunity to bring back Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec, only the Lockwood Dam has even interim upstream fish passage, and none have properly engineered downstream fish passage. There are major concerns about the effectiveness of the recently-installed upstream fish passage at Lockwood.”

In spite of this, Morin is hopeful for the river’s future.

“It’s beautiful seeing how many of the cities along the Kennebec— Benton, China, Winslow, Vassalboro, and of course, our very  own Waterville— have started to gain interest in the river once again, this time appreciating it for its benefits while taking care to reduce their impact upon it. Overall, I’m optimistic for Kennebec,” he said.

Living in Waterville gives one a certain appreciation of the cornucopia of boundless natural beauty that envelops the bubble that is our College. As such, it is necessary that we, as not only citizens and members of this community, but also as people of this state,  country, and Earth, work to preserve and care for the ground and water around us.

~ Dimitri Lin `25

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