Several related and parallel efforts are underway to address changes occurring in the Penobscot watershed. Most have come in the wake of the Penobscot River Restoration Project, which in 2003 announced plans to remove the Great Works and Veazie dams, create a natural bypass channel around the Howland Dam on the Piscataquis, and rebalance hydropower generation throughout the lower river.

The partnership charged with implementing the project, the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, is focused on acquiring and removing the dams. In order to coordinate research and monitoring related to the restoration project, the Trust helped form the Penobscot River Science Steering Committee in early 2006. The committee is comprised of representatives of six state and federal agencies, the Penobscot Nation and The Nature Conservancy, as well as 18 scientists with expertise in dam removal and river ecology.

When the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River was removed in 1999, only a few studies were conducted to document the resulting changes in a large river system. Anecdotal accounts abound, but many scientists recognize that they lost an opportunity to learn about dam removal and how rivers respond to human attempts at restoration. Such lessons would help guide future restoration efforts to maximize benefits and minimize risks.

When the Penobscot project was announced, the scientific and advocacy communities were in agreement that such an opportunity would not be missed again. The Penobscot River Science Steering Committee is drafting a monitoring framework document to help guide and prioritize studies on the river, and plays an advisory role to the trust, among other functions.

Last fall, faculty, students and staff at the University of Maine began exploring opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. Dubbed the “Environmental Solutions Initiative,” or ESI, the effort was launched by David Hart, director of the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Environmental and Watershed Research; and Chris Cronan and Jim Wilson.

Upon joining the faculty in 2006, Hart recognized that significant capacity for environmental problem solving existed in the University of Maine System. On the Orono campus alone, up to 25 percent of the faculty have some kind of environmental expertise, including the social sciences and humanities, notes Hart. The challenge, he says, is how to connect and apply all of that knowledge to the issues that confront Maine residents and legislators in Augusta.

Taking a cue from the recent Brookings Institution report on Maine’s economy, ESI participants elected to focus first on alternative development scenarios in the lower Penobscot River watershed. “We are starting in our own backyard. It’s where we know a lot and have strong partnerships. But we are also ramping up our capacity to work on issues statewide and beyond,” says Hart. “This is really more a way of thinking about how to solve problems, and how we can make it easier for faculty to be more effective in their efforts to help solve environmental problems. UMaine has provided funding for five pilot projects already underway in which stakeholders are partners.”

Working with stakeholders is key to the ESI vision, according to Hart, and at the same time as ESI was getting organized, residents in the watershed were forming the Lower Penobscot Watershed Coalition (LPWC). The coalition is propelled by members of the Cove Brook Watershed Council in Winterport and Hampden, who recognized the need for an entity with a regional presence in the watershed. “We were getting calls from people outside of the Cove Brook watershed inquiring about everything from dam removals to sprawl,” said Cove Brook Watershed Council president Gayle Zydlewski.

“We were the only watershed organization in the lower river region, but many of the issues were beyond the scope of our mission statement,” said Zydlewski, who began to explore the possibility of forming a broader coalition. “There was a lot more excitement than I expected,” she said. The LPWC has brought together municipalities, state and federal agency staff, nonprofit organizations, land trusts, and residents of the lower Penobscot River watershed. The group is still figuring out its identity and activities, but to date it has created an inventory of educational programs and citizen monitoring projects, and attended area events to increase interest and awareness. Zydlewski said the main driver behind the coalition is a concern for water quality, and how increasing development pressure throughout the watershed may affect the river and bay.

This pressure was highlighted in a 2005 report by the U.S. Forest Service that found the lower Penobscot River region was the most threatened by development in the eastern U.S., with over 300,000 acres of privately owned forest predicted to be converted to residential housing in the next 25 years, more than any other watershed in the study.

“The idea of planning for growth, that’s where the coalition comes in,” said Zydlewski, “We want to make sure that we are doing it carefully, in ways that protect water quality.” Zydlewski added that even though the coalition is still figuring itself out, people have been supportive of the concept. “I think people are becoming more aware [of environmental health and quality of life issues], and they want to have a voice that’s beyond their particular jobs, to make a difference in a bigger way.” Zydlewski said the coalition has been helping to connect concerned citizens with state agency personnel and nonprofit conservation organizations.

The LPWC is an echo of the Penobscot Bay Network, which in the 1990s came together to understand issues related to the Penobscot watershed and bay, an effort that culminated in an application to the EPA’s National Estuary Program. Outputs of the Network included two conferences on the bay, a bibliography, and the 1996 book Penobscot: Forest, River and Bay (published by the Island Institute).

The restoration project, too, has precedent: the dam removals were 50 years in the making, according to salmon conservationists, and over 200 years in coming to the Penobscot Indian Nation — a history that predates the land use and attitude changes that are driving the current activities.

The challenge is how to coordinate all these efforts so that they complement each other, which will require communication, trust, and respect for each other’s expertise and roles, says David Hart of the Mitchell Center, “It is an extraordinary opportunity to help shape our future, so we need to make the most of it.” q

For more information on the Penobscot River Science Steering Committee: visit, Penobscot River Restoration Trust:, Lower Penobscot Watershed Coalition:, Environmental Solutions Initiative:

First of two articles on Maine’s major rivers. Next month: the Kennebec.