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Faces of conservation

Q&A with Colin Apse

By Kate Frazer

People in Maine are excited about the results the Penobscot River’s restoration will have for migratory fish, riverfront communities and cultural traditions. But at RiverSymposium, a global freshwater summit in Australia the project generated excitement of a different kind — as a model for sustainable freshwater management in the developing world. We spoke with Colin Apse, the Conservancy’s deputy director of freshwater science for the eastern United States, to find out more.
"I hope this project inspires energy planners to place dams in locations that are least disruptive to key processes, like migration, and to operate them in ways that maintain all of nature’s key services."

Colin Apse, deputy director of the Eastern U.S. Freshwater Program

What can the Penobscot project teach us about the apparent conflict between hydropower generation and ecological protection in the developing world?


When we try to reconcile the soaring energy needs of developing countries with the realities of climate change, it becomes immediately clear that hydropower is going to be part of our future. What we are doing on the Penobscot is exactly what we need to be doing proactively in places like Africa and China. We need to find ways for hydropower to work with the ecology of the region.

Working across the eastern United States, you are involved in dozens of restoration projects. What’s special about this one?


The scale of this project is hard to ignore: We’re restoring the second-largest river in the Northeast, the last vestige of habitat for the vast majority of Atlantic salmon remaining on the East Coast of the U.S. And with the hydropower company increasing production at existing dams on tributaries to ensure that energy generation remains close to the same, the project is a real win-win. Dam removals can be contentious, but here all parties came together to make it work.

What are some of the results you are looking for?


We’re hoping to see improvements for fish in the river, but also for species like cod that feed on these fish when they travel to and from Penobscot Bay. As the climate changes, it will become increasingly important to integrate our freshwater and marine work in this way. I hope this project inspires energy planners to place dams in locations that are least disruptive to key processes, like migration, and to operate them in ways that maintain all of nature’s key services. The best thing you can do to make an ecosystem more resilient is to keep it together.

What changes will occur when the dams are removed?


Surprisingly, one thing that won’t change much is the flow of the river. These dams have been operating “run of the river,” meaning they mimic natural flow. But in the absence of the structures, fish, sediment and other natural materials will be able to move again. Nutrients coming in and going out will make for more productive estuaries. Long-lived fish like Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon will have miles of critical habitat returned. And the Penobscot Indian Nation will have the opportunity to regain traditions linked to their identity.

What other strategies is the Conservancy using to protect Maine’s water resources?


Our government relations staff in Maine are making great headway in freshwater policy, and that work flows directly from our science. Maine science staff are also working with state and federal agencies on a comprehensive plan to identify and remove culverts and dams that fragment our most important fish habitats. And in places like the Machias River watershed, we’re protecting land so that we can maintain the river’s floodplain. It is much better — ecologically and economically — to preserve these ecosystems now than to have to restore them later.

What's the next challenge?


To think even bigger. Given that climate change may bring more frequent and intense flooding, we need to be creative about flood risk management—for example, by protecting and restoring floodplains now to help avoid future risk to human lives and property.

We also need to learn more about the threats migratory fish face in the ocean and their needs throughout their entire life cycle. As critical as it is for us to work on the ground to understand the workings of each tributary, it is equally important that we step back and look at how this river fits into the bigger picture.

Colin Apse, deputy director of the Eastern U.S. Freshwater Program, directs environmental flow protection efforts in the East, while working with state chapters and their partners to restore connectivity on priority Eastern rivers. Much of his current work focuses on developing new strategies and policy approaches that balance human water use and environmental flow needs at local, state and interstate scales. Apse holds a B.A. from Duke University and a Master’s in Environmental Management from Yale University.

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