Explainer: Freeing the Kennebec River

CLF and our partners are pushing to remove four harmful dams on Maine's Kennebec River that threaten endangered Atlantic salmon

Removing four obsolete dams on the Kennebec River is an urgent next step that will improve the health of the Gulf of Maine, enhance riverfront communities, and bring back millions of sea-run fish, including endangered Atlantic salmon. Video courtesy of Natural Resources Council of Maine/EcoPhotography

Four dams threaten the health of the Kennebec River – one of Maine’s most important natural resources. Owned by Brookfield Renewable Partners, a massive multinational energy corporation, the dams block endangered Atlantic salmon and other fish species from reaching their spawning grounds in the Sandy River. 

CLF and its partners want these harmful dams removed. Letting the Kennebec run free of these dams can help bring back millions of sea-run fish to the river – a critical step to preserving our valuable state fisheries and improving the health of the Gulf of Maine.

What’s at stake? 

Historically, over 200,000 Atlantic salmon migrated annually from the ocean to their spawning grounds in Maine’s rivers – a true spectacle of nature. As they swam against the current, leaping out of the water, the fish transported rich marine nutrients into our river headwaters, keeping both the rivers and ocean healthy.

Today, only a few hundred Atlantic salmon return to Maine’s waters each year. On the Kennebec, that number barely breaks double digits. The continued operation of Brookfield’s four dams, all located between Waterville and Skowhegan, could wipe out Maine’s Atlantic salmon population altogether.

But salmon are not the only species affected. These four dams also prevent millions of other sea-run fish critical to our state’s commercial fishing industry – including eels, blueback herring, alewives, shad, and sea lamprey – from reaching their native spawning waters.

What’s more, Atlantic salmon have cultural and spiritual significance for communities across eastern North America – including the Wabanaki tribes of Maine and Canada.

What’s the solution? 

Mainers deserve a healthy Kennebec River that can support thriving fisheries and meet the needs of riverfront communities. CLF and our partners – the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Maine Rivers, and Trout Unlimited – joined forces to protect the Kennebec and its precious resources. 

Last year, CLF and its partners sued Brookfield for violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing its dams to kill large numbers of Atlantic salmon. We also oppose the company’s efforts to secure a new federal license to operate their dams for another 40 years. We want the company to stop violating the law and start playing a constructive role in solving the problems its four dams cause.

What does success look like? 

CLF has worked for decades to free dammed rivers across Maine. On rivers like the St. Croix and the Presumpscot, alewives have returned in record numbers as the result of removing dams or reopening fishways. The revival of the alewife population has created new fishing opportunities and improved the health of river and marine ecosystems. 

The lower Kennebec also surged back to life after two dams were removed there. The upper Kennebec can experience the same resurgence. We can set Atlantic salmon on the path to recovery, improve the river’s health, and support healthy fisheries in the Gulf of Maine. 

What’s next?

Earlier this year, a judge cleared the way for our lawsuit against Brookfield to go to trial. We will have the opportunity to hold the company accountable for failing to comply with the law.

Before you go... CLF is working every day to create real, systemic change for New England’s environment. And we can’t solve these big problems without people like you. Will you be a part of this movement by considering a contribution today? If everyone reading our blog gave just $10, we’d have enough money to fund our legal teams for the next year.