director Blog: Breaking Down Barriers to Benefit Fish and Communities

Breaking Down Barriers to Benefit Fish and Communities

Rivers are the lifeblood of our nation and always have been. The course of our rivers has long shaped where we live and work. We realize that the health of rivers and the communities they support is linked to their ability to flow.

Free-flowing rivers are vital to our nation’s aquatic species. Native fish, shellfish, amphibians, waterfowl and plants depend on the ebb and flow of rivers throughout their lives. And free-flowing rivers do so much more –  they help with flood control, provide recreational opportunities and are a source of inspiration.

Veazie Dam

Removal begins of the Veazie Dam in July 2013. Credit: Meagan Racey/USFWS

It’s estimated that 74,000 dams dot the American landscape, thousands of which are small, aging and no longer serve a purpose.

These derelict structures impede the passage of native fish, destroy spawning habitat and degrade water quality by preventing stream flow that flushes our river systems. The dams also reduce river-based recreational and economic opportunities for local communities. Some aging dams also threaten to flood downstream communities if they fail.

So I’m pleased to report that along with our partners, we reopened more than 2,500 miles of streams and 36,000 associated wetland acres to fish passage in 2012, making it one of our most successful years for restoration.

One of the biggest projects we worked on was the removal of the Great Works Dam on Maine’s Penobscot River.  The removal of the dam marked the beginning of what will be largest river restoration project in the country.   It will make more than 1,000 miles of native habitat available for federally listed Atlantic salmon and other aquatic species for the public to enjoy. It will restore a cultural and natural resource for the Penobscot Indian Nation.

And it is not just our National Fish Passage Program. The National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program, co-administered by the Coastal Program and the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, has provided substantial support for reopening the Penobscot River. Conservation Planning Assistance biologists also played a key role.

This project took another step forward yesterday when removal began of the Veazie Dam. This was a monumental moment for the river, restoring connectivity to parts of the river that has not flowed into the Atlantic Ocean for more than 100 years.

The National Fish Passage Program improves fish passage through road-crossing structures, such as culverts and channel-spanning bridges. Tropical Storm Irene taught us a great deal about helping New England communities recover and withstand future floods through the science of fish passage, and we are putting that knowledge to work as we coordinate with partners to wisely rebuild communities after Superstorm Sandy. 

This science also was put to good use in September 2012 when rains drenched Alaska, resulting in a federal flood disaster.  Ninety-nine percent of road-stream crossings that were retrofitted with larger, fish-friendly channel-spanning structures survived the flooding, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in recovery costs. Commerce and transportation continued uninterrupted despite the disaster – and we protected important aquatic species.

With new and existing partners, we hope in 2013 to restore more than 300 river miles and 15,000 wetland acres across the country and expand our reach to communities across the nation. Restoring free-flowing streams wherever possible will help fish and other aquatic species, with the American public as the real beneficiary.

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Last updated: August 31, 2011