Opinion

Let the Salmon Run Free

In his 1937 book, “Kennebec: Cradle of Americans,” the poet Robert Tristram Coffin called Maine’s sprawling river a “paradise for fish.” But pollution and dams that block spawning runs for Atlantic salmon, sturgeon and shad put an end to that world.

The Kennebec River now runs mostly clean, thanks to laws that reduced pollution. Yet four hydroelectric dams, two built in the early 20th century and the other two in the 1980s, remain on the lower reaches of the 150-mile-long river and continue to prevent endangered salmon from reaching their single most important spawning tributary, the Sandy River. Now a confluence of factors makes this the time to right this wrong.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is considering relicensing one of the dams, the Shawmut, the third in line upstream from the Gulf of Maine, which would allow it to operate for up to 50 more years. At the same time, the commission is considering amending the licenses of the other three dams to permit their operator, Brookfield Renewable, which also owns the Shawmut, to pursue feeble efforts to develop ways for fish to bypass these blockades. (The deadline for public comments on its draft proposal is June 4.)

A company spokesman said Brookfield seeks to “carefully balance public, economic, energy and natural resource interests.” But there is no real balance in its proposal. The commission should order the removal of the dams. This is hardly an outlandish proposal. Dams are being removed from rivers across the country. Last year, 80 were demolished, reconnecting obstructed waterways with 1,160 upstream river miles.

It is true that the loss of these dams would mean a loss of energy production. The four dams have a combined capacity to generate nearly 47 megawatts of electricity, enough to power tens of thousands of homes. But their output is only 6 percent of Maine’s overall hydroelectric capacity. Moreover, their output would be dwarfed by plans by the State of Maine for enough wind turbines in the Gulf of Maine to generate 3,000 megawatts of electricity by 2040 — nearly 70 times the capacity of those dams. A utility-scale solar power plant of several hundred acres could replace much of the electricity production that would be forgone.

Maine does not need those four dams. Allowing them to remain for decades more would perpetuate a continuing disaster for the river and its fish.

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