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Central Maine towns do not support amendment to state plan for Kennebec River

Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Madison have all submitted letters to the Maine Department of Marine Resources opposing the amendment.

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The proposal to remove dams on the Kennebec is in aid of an ongoing restoration effort to benefit migratory fish in the system, including the spawning of wild Atlantic salmon in the Sandy River.

The proposed amendment to the state’s Kennebec River Management Plan to restore a healthy river and boost fish population has drawn significant opposition from several central Maine towns.

Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Madison have all expressed their opposition to the amendment, citing the economic impacts that the region would face should the amendment be adopted.

Previously, Waterville’s City Council voted to support the state’s plan, while Winslow and Fairfield town councils voted in opposition.

The amendment proposed by the Maine Department of Marine Resources seeks to expand the fish species targeted for restoration in the river to include all of Maine’s native diadromous fish, or species that spend a portion of their life in rivers and a portion of their life in ocean. The amendment also updates the descriptions of the physical, biological and ecological conditions in the watershed and revises goals, objectives and actions for restoration in the river and provides reasons for decommissioning and removing dams.

The amendment to the plan includes the potential removal of four dams along the Kennebec River, which includes the Shawmut in Fairfield, Weston in Skowhegan, and the Hydro Kennebec and Lockwood dams in Waterville. All four are owned by Toronto-based Brookfield Renewable Partners.

The dams account for more than 250 million kilowatt-hours of renewable energy annually.

Last week, a Brookfield subsidiary announced a lawsuit had been filed, suing the Maine Department of Marine Resources and its commissioner, Patrick Keliher. The lawsuit calls the rulemaking process of the Kennebec River Management Diadromous Resources Amendment “unlawful” and seeks to have the amendment process stopped.

The filing claims that the Marine Resources agency is not consulting with its sister agencies regarding the provisions of the management plan; it is also not following the plan as it was conceived in 1993.

Brookfield believes MDMR is acting outside its legal rights and in their filing, highlighted deficiencies within the plan, including not allowing the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry or other agencies to assist with the plan and not providing an estimate of the fiscal impact of the project.

In Skowhegan, Town Manager Christine Almand said Monday that the matter was discussed at a Feb. 9 meeting, when Miranda Kessel, stakeholder relations manager at Brookfield Renewable Partners, provided background information to the board as well as what the amendment, if passed, would mean for the town.

“The MDMR’s new plan to advance dam removal would result in the loss of stable water flows and minimize shorelines, causing harm to Skowhegan’s recreation and economic development prospects,” Kessel said.

The Weston facility generates $618,000 in local tax revenue. The total economic impact for the lower Kennebec dams averages $4 million annually. The Kennebec regional headquarters, located in Skowhegan, includes 20 employees.

In Skowhegan’s letter to the MDMR and Keliher, dated Feb. 9, the selectmen expressed their disapproval, citing that this would get in the way of the town’s Run of River Project, which is expected to have a huge economic impact on the entire region. When complete, the Run of River will be situated within the downtown Kennebec River Gorge and its environs. The park will feature water and land-based facilities, including a whitewater park with rapids and waves for kayakers, canoes and paddle boarders. Off the water, a four-season trail system for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing will be established, making the area a tourist destination.

“We understand the importance of the endangered status of the Atlantic Salmon and other migratory species,” Skowhegan’s letter says. “The amendment does not mention economic impacts that dam removal will have on small communities, nor to businesses like Sappi Fine Paper and Maine Water Company.”

The board then urges the MDMR to gather more information and fully understand the impacts to all Maine residents, businesses and towns before making any decision to move forward with the amendment, citing that “we feel that more open public input is needed in order for an informed decision to be made.”

Almand added that she attended a March 15 hearing and asked questions during the Q&A portion, but was not able to stay long enough to provide comments. At this meeting, Almand asked when the state would issue a report as to what changes would occur if dams were removed, citing that, with the Run of River Project, many wonder what change might happen on the river if dams are removed.

Norridgewock Town Manager Richard LaBelle said last week that his board of selectmen signed a Feb. 5 letter objecting to the proposed amendment. He added that Norridgewock was the first community to “openly object to the process of proposing the amendment to the plan.”

Other than the letter, LaBelle said that the town has not issued any additional public comment and that the concerns raised by the town’s select board remain unaddressed by the Department of Marine Resources.

“Our public discussion has been limited to a brief discussion at the Board of Selectmen meeting …” LaBelle said. “The feedback from that post, although limited in scope, was overwhelming in opposition to the amendment and potential for dam removal.”

In Madison, the selectmen shared similar thoughts, adding that “if this amendment were to result in the removal of dams along the Kennebec, there would be severe adverse economic impact to the towns along the river.”

Removing the dams “would deal another blow to the region’s economic recovery,” the Madison select board said, adding that the closure of Madison Paper Industries was a devastating loss that the community is still recovering from. While redevelopment of the site is underway, millions of dollars in federal and state funding have already been spent on infrastructure needs.

“Clean, renewable energy and protecting wildlife are high priorities for all Mainers,” the Madison statement says. “Our hope is that a well-balanced approach will be the result of this process.”