Rebecca Wodder is president of American Rivers in Washington, D.C. She previously worked at the Wilderness Society and as the legislative assistant for then-Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.). Her career in conservation started with the first Earth Day in 1970.

Monday, 5 Jul 1999

WASHINGTON, D.C.

I’ve just returned from witnessing the rebirth of a river. After 162 years of captivity, Maine’s Kennebec River is flowing freely again, thanks to a decade-long effort on the part of a dedicated crew of river activists.

And what a sight it was! The church bells of Augusta rang out on July 1st while a huge piece of earthmoving equipment, the kind that is usually busy scarring the earth, dug away at a section of a temporary cofferdam. Within a few minutes, water was pouring through a 60-foot gap in the 900-foot-wide Edwards Dam.

The rest of the dam will be dismantled over the next five months. By Thanksgiving, the obstruction that has kept Atlantic salmon, striped bass, and nine other species of anadromous fish from their prime spawning grounds since 1837 will be no more.

The hundreds of people gathered to watch the Kennebec gain its independence witnessed something else as well. They witnessed the beginning of a new era for America’s rivers.

Thirty years ago, on June 22, 1969, the nation’s attention was riveted on the burning Cuyahoga River. That travesty inspired the passage of the Clean Water Act three years later. Thanks to this landmark law, terribly polluted rivers across America have been rescued from the worst abuses, including the Kennebec that was so choked by industrial wastes that the windows of the state capitol were closed in summer to keep out the stench.

The freeing of the Kennebec is connected to the Cuyahoga in two ways. First, if the river hadn’t been cleaned up, no one would have considered this next step in its rebirth. No one would have cared, no fish would have been present to benefit, no economic benefit would have been perceived.

The second connection is that by removing the Edwards Dam, we’ve made history, just as the burning Cuyahoga did in 1969. An indelible image has been created in the minds of the people who witnessed the act. Thirty years from now, the next generation will look back on July 1, 1999 as the day when a river regained its most fundamental right — to flow freely.

The hallmarks of this new era for rivers will be local acts of repair and restoration. As a society, we are entering a time when communities rediscover that their hometown river is one of their most valuable assets, that restoring it to enhance the quality of life is the highest and best purpose to which the river and riverside lands can be put.

Thankfully, rivers are resilient and have a tremendous capacity for self-healing. A little effort on our behalf will be rewarded many times over. What was achieved for the Kennebec will be an inspiration for other communities across the nation. A new era in the making.