Wyss Gift Helps Penobscot River Flow Free Again

EDDINGTON AND VEAZIE, MAINE – With a $2 million commitment from the Wyss Foundation, work began today to remove the Veazie Dam, which will enable the Penobscot River to flow freely from Old Town, Maine to the sea for the first time in nearly 200 years.

The removal of the 830-foot long, 30 foot high buttress-style Veazie Dam, built in 1913, is a monumental step in the Penobscot River Restoration Project, among the largest river restoration efforts in the nation’s history.

With the removal of the Veazie dam, endangered shortnose sturgeon, threatened Atlantic sturgeon, striped bass, tomcod and rainbow smelt will have open access to 100% of their historic habitat in Maine’s largest river and second largest in the Northeast. Combined with the Great Works Dam removal in 2012 and fish passage improvements to be completed at Milford and Howland dams, the Veazie Dam removal is a key component of the historic effort to greatly improve access to 1000 miles of habitat for endangered Atlantic salmon, American shad, alewife, and eight other species of sea-run fish.

“A generation ago, nobody would have imagined that the Penobscot River would flow free again, and that more than a thousand miles of an iconic American river would be re-opened to the historic migrations of Atlantic salmon,” said philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss. “Today, the Penobscot River is a shining example of just what is possible when local communities come together to craft solutions that work for their economy, protect their way of life, and restore the lands and waters they love.”

For more than a decade, the Penobscot Indian Nation, seven conservation groups, hydropower companies, and state and federal agencies, have worked together — with broad community input — to implement an unprecedented plan to restore sea-run fisheries while maintaining hydropower generation.
“The removal of the Veazie Dam is truly a historic day for our tribe and this great river. We are very grateful to everyone who has worked to make this day possible. Our relationship with the Penobscot River is at the very core of who we are as a people and plays a significant role in our spiritual and physical health,” said Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Indian Nation. “This river being restored to its natural state with health and vitality means everything to our people.”

The Penobscot Project’s innovative public-private partnership is recognized internationally for its potential to restore vital habitat for fish and wildlife, expand opportunities for outdoor recreation, and support energy production in a large ecosystem. In 2012, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the Penobscot River as one of America’s Great Outdoors Rivers.

“For the first time in 150 years, the Atlantic salmon run will naturally reach the Penobscot Indian Nation’s ancient fishing grounds on the river that bears their name. When Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon, river herring, American eels, and other migratory fish reach Veazie, they will once again freely swim upstream. We are pleased to provide support for such a monumental and far-reaching endeavor,” said Wendi Weber, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region Director. “The combined effort of many partners has led to success on the Penobscot and the Project has been hailed as a model for river restoration. Together, we have taken great strides to ensure that the river will provide enduring benefits for the people of Maine and the Penobscot Indian Nation.”

For millennia, the Penobscot River flowed unobstructed into the Gulf of Maine, supporting a bountiful landscape that sustained the first people of the region, the Penobscot people, and then later the communities that grew from European settlement. In the early 1800’s the construction of multiple dams on the lower river had an immediate and harmful impact on fisheries and transportation routes. Dams at this site have blocked sea-run fish from reaching their spawning, rearing, and nursery habitat, leading to the sharp decline of once thriving fisheries that were central to the economies and culture of river and coastal communities.

“We are thrilled to be part of this ongoing collaborative effort to restore the Penobscot watershed ecosystem,” said John Bullard, Regional Administrator, NOAA Fisheries. “We expect to see some real benefits to the 11 sea-run fish species that inhabit these waters, notably vulnerable Atlantic sturgeon and shortnose sturgeon, which now will have access to 100 percent of their historic habitat. By providing fish with the right places to breed, grow, and survive to adulthood, we can have a stronger regional ecosystem with increased opportunities for recreational fishing and a bigger commercial harvest.”

Project partner Black Bear Hydro Partners, LLC, is completing projects to increase energy generation at six dams including the Stillwater and Orono dams that will maintain and likely increase hydropower generation supported by the Penobscot Project partners. Once Veazie Dam is removed, Milford Dam will become the lowermost dam on the river. Black Bear is constructing a fish lift at Milford and making additional fish passage improvements at dams elsewhere in the watershed.

Restoring the Penobscot River ecosystem is expected to reinvigorate long-valued outdoor traditions, such as fishing, fly-tying, fly rod-making, canoe building, bird-watching, and paddling, and expand recreation and tourism opportunities, benefitting local and regional economies for years to come. Generous support over many years from numerous public and private sources laid the foundation for this occasion.

Whitner Chase