Securing healthy rivers for healthy communities

Aquatic organism passage critical for migratory fish and flood protection 

By James Miller

As one of the last rivers containing a remnant population of wild Atlantic salmon and the southernmost river in the species’ range, Maine’s 66-mile Sheepscot River is, literally, exceptional.

In another way, it’s far from unique: The Sheepscot is one of hundreds of rivers in the northeastern United States where obsolete dams once used for mills, water supplies or other needs have, for decades, blocked sea-run fish from accessing desperately needed spawning habitat.

On the Sheepscot, this changed in 2019, when – with support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA’s Community Based Restoration Program – the Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF), The Nature Conservancy, and Midcoast Conservancy took out a portion of Head Tide Dam in Alna, Maine, removing the first barrier migratory Atlantic salmon, American shad and river herring met when they headed upstream from the Gulf of Maine.

In an interview with the Service, ASF Maine Headwaters Project Manager Maranda Nemeth recently described the opening of the river as “an ecological milestone for the watershed” because of the amount of time—somewhere north of 250 years—the dam had blocked the river.

Fortunately, stories like this one are becoming more common.

Since 2009, projects supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its 14-state North Atlantic-Appalachian Region such as dam removals, road-stream crossing upgrades, and fishways, have resulted in 757 barriers removed and 7,350 river miles re-opened for migratory fish.

Want to learn more about the benefits of migratory fish passage? Check out this session from the 2020 National Coastal & Estuarine Summit.

That, by the way, is more than three times the length of the Mississippi River.

Importantly, too, many of these projects are providing direct benefits for people.

Some reduce risks to human safety and property posed by undersized culverts that cannot handle heavy floodwaters, and others remove the risk of dam failure that threatens downstream communities.

In the case of Head Tide Dam, the project also helped reconnect the community to the river.

A portion of the dam’s spillway was left intact so the town’s popular swimming hole would not be disturbed, while an accessible overlook compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act was built at the dam opening to facilitate viewing of the river—and the fish runs. Parking was also improved to allow more people to enjoy the spot, and stairs were installed to facilitate safe access to the river’s edge.

The ASF-led full removal, in 2018, of Coopers Mills Dam—upstream in Whitefield—also included establishment of a park at the site. (The two projects are part of a broader collaborative effort on the Sheepscot, which is scheduled to continue this year.)

At the Service, we love to celebrate successes like these and are grateful for the work of our partners.

But there’s still an enormous amount of work to be done throughout the region—for nature and for people.

“We can restore these rivers and streams for the benefit of both fish and wildlife and the surrounding communities,” said Cathy Bozek, fish passage coordinator for the Service in the North Atlantic-Appalachian Region. “That’s a long-term return on investment that’s worthy of the resources that we are committing to this work. We’re looking forward to working with our partners to keep it going.”

Thanks to the Atlantic Salmon Federation for sharing its images of canoeists below Head Tide Dam and Project Manager Maranda Nemeth at the site prior to removal of the dam’s spillway.

James I. Miller writes for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 


A longer form version of this story also appears on Atlantic Salmon Federation’s website. Click here to check it out.