Northeastern Rivers Are Opening Up for Fish and Paddlers

Dams removed from Western rivers get the lion share of attention, but nearly 100 dams have been removed from waterways in Northeast since 1991.


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We live in a country of old, decaying dams—many of which are being decommissioned and removed due to safety hazards and/or insufficient energy generation. In the past two years, breaches of three Washington dams—the 100-foot Condit dam on the White Salmon, the 108-foot Elwha dam and the 50-foot Glines Canyon dam, both on the Elwha River—have been widely lauded by conservation groups and paddlers alike because their removal means the reintroduction of historic salmon spawning grounds and in some cases new whitewater. With four rivers on the Klamath marked for possible removal, as well, all eyes are on the decline of outdated dams and the rise of salmon in the West.

Though they seem to receive less attention, similar changes are afoot on East Coast rivers, punctuated by the recent breach of the 100-year-old Veazie Dam on Maine’s Penobscot River. This is the second large dam to be removed from the river in as many years, and aside from opening up large stretches of river to the endangered Atlantic salmon and Atlantic sturgeon the breaches are also changing the river for paddlers.

“After the Great Works dam was removed last year, Class II-III rapids appeared at the old dam site,” says Scott Phillips, a former employee of local manufacturer Old Town Canoe, and owner of Northeast Sports in Old Town, on the shores of the Penobscot. “It’s yet to be determined what the stretch of river around the Veazie will become, but probably Class II-III, as well.”

With or without whitewater, Phillips believes the freed river is going to attract more outfitters and guides: “More people are going to start paddling this forgotten river. People are going to start guiding trips, renting boats, and in the springtime, when the water is highest, I can imagine people running raft trips down this river.”

The Penobscot’s restoration is important because it is the largest watershed in Maine and home to the Penobscot Indian Nation, which relied on the fishery before the dams depleted them.  

“The biggest thing is bringing back the fish populations,” says Phillips, who is a Penobscot Indian. “My dad is 73, a tribal elder, and he can’t wait for the Atlantic salmon to come back [in large numbers]. He already has his traditional spear ready.” But whether his dad, or even Phillips himself, will live to see the salmon population rebound significantly is yet unknown.

The Veazie’s removal, which began in July and should be completed in two years, was made possible through a private-public partnership brokered by the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, which worked with the government, conservation groups, the hydropower companies and the Penobscot Indian Nation.

Other Rivers
“The Penobscot is without question a very substantial river and used for canoeing and kayaking at all levels, from flat water to Class V,” says Bob Nasdor, northeast stewardship director for American Whitewater. But it’s not the first major Northeast waterway to be freed up.

The Edwards Dam was removed from the Kennebec River, also in Maine, in 1999 – a historic event because it “marked the first time the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled that the ecological value of a free-flowing river was greater than the economic value of a dam,” according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

The Kennebec has really had a renaissance of recreation [since the dam came down],” says Brian Graber, acting senior director of restoration for advocacy group American Rivers. “For decades, Augusta and the surrounding area had turned their back on the river,” but the focus on the river since the dam’s removal has made it a great success. Most importantly, spawning fish are returning.

Though not as prominent, the removal of the Pawtuxet Falls dam, which was removed in 2011, was the largest such project in Rhode Island history and opened up seven miles of river and wetlands to fish, including spawning herring and shad, and to paddlers.

This August, the Dufresne Dam on Vermont’s Batten Kill is scheduled for removal, which has anglers—including those who work at Orvis, headquartered in nearby Manchester—looking forward to improved fly-fishing for trout.
In New Hampshire, the Bunker Pond dam on the Lamprey River, a National Wild & Scenic waterway, was removed in 2011. Like the dam on the Pawtuxet—and like many eastern dams—it was built to power a long-gone mill. It was also far more costly to maintain than to remove.

The Taunton River in Massachusetts is also undergoing change. The removal of the Whittenton Dam, on its tributary the Mill River, is underway now. The freed up river will give more spawning grounds to river herring, which are important prey for striped bass and other large fish.

In total, American Rivers has tracked the removal of an impressive 96 dams on Northeastern rivers since 1991.

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