A proposal to amend the state’s Kennebec River Management Plan to restore a healthy river and boost fish population drew both support and opposition Monday.
Some people who attended a virtual public hearing hosted by the Maine Department of Marine Resources said removing the Lockwood Dam in Waterville and the Shawmut Dam in Fairfield would allow endangered Atlantic salmon to move upriver to spawn and pave the way for recreational opportunities on the river and boost economic development.
But others claimed that removal of those or other dams owned by Brookfield Renewable Partners would negatively impact the economy and properties along the river, create job losses and cause municipal tax rates to increase.
The amendment seeks to expand the fish species targeted for restoration in the river to include all of Maine’s native diadromous fish, or those whose life cycles occur in both the rivers and ocean. It also would update descriptions of the physical, biological and ecological conditions in the watershed, revise goals, objectives and actions for restoration in the river and provide reasons for decommissioning and removing dams.
Hearing attendees were allowed only to ask “clarifying questions.” Later they could comment, pro or con. The hearing was not a debate platform.
Winslow Town Manager Erica LaCroix said Winslow would stand to lose more than $600,000 in annual revenue if the hydro dam were removed. Property owners along the river also would be impacted, she said.
“Is the state considering any type of aid to those communities?” LaCroix asked. “Because we don’t have a downtown to turn into a riverfront.”
Sean Ledwin, director of Sea-Run Fisheries and Habitat division of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, which researches, monitors and works to restore fish species, said the proposed river plan change is just a document and it is unclear what actually will happen at any particular point, including whether dams would be removed. He said, however, that his department would advocate for ways to offset any such impacts.
Four fishermen cast for stripers June 24, 2020, in the Kennebec River just below the Lockwood Dam in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file
“As of right now, given where we are in this early stage, we don’t have any specific plans for that,” he said.
Ledwin emphasized that if any major action such as dam removal were considered, it would require significant input over a number of years, so dam removal would not occur any time soon. Monday’s hearing was a first step in a long conversation, he said.
He said in his overview that movement of fish up and down the river can be disrupted or stopped by dams, leading to fish population decline or extinction.
The Kennebec, he said, is a tale of two rivers. The removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta and the Fort Halifax Dam in Winslow resulted in “fantastic” results that drew international attention and coverage by National Public Radio and National Geographic.
“Above Waterville starting at Lockwood, the story is quite different,” he said, adding that there are low numbers of fish, particularly shad and Atlantic salmon. His department trucks fish to areas north of the Lockwood Dam, he said, and his department has seen fish get stuck for more than 100 days at the dam and die.
“That is not a good situation and not a recipe for success,” he said.
Skowhegan Town Manager Christine Almand asked when the state would issue a report as to what changes would occur if dams were removed. Skowhegan is home to the Weston Dam on the Kennebec.
“We don’t have a specific report of, if the Skowhegan impoundment were to change, what that would look like,” Ledwin said.
Ice chokes the Weston Dam and Kennebec River in downtown Skowhegan in March 2014. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file
Almand said Skowhegan has a large project coming up, and residents are asking questions about what change there might be in the river. She was referring to the town’s Run of River project.
“We (would) definitely appreciate receiving more information about that in the future,” she said, to which Ledwin said his department will be happy to work with her on that.
The proposed river plan amendment states Maine supports domestic hydropower as an important component of energy and a renewable source of energy critical to meeting climate goals, but that sources of renewable energy, including hydropower, can still have impacts on the state’s resources.
“Due to large impacts on State resources and relatively small generation, the State believes the best approach to meet our management goals for the Kennebec River is to decommission and remove some or all of the dams in the Lower Kennebec,” it says.
PROS AND CONS
Miranda Kessel, Brookfield’s manager of stakeholder relations, emailed the Morning Sentinel a statement from the company prior to Monday’s hearing. It says Brookfield and affected parties that include state lawmakers, municipalities, businesses, and local stakeholder and labor groups, are voicing their opposition to the proposed amendment which “fails to balance diverse river interests.”
“The Department made multiple missteps in developing this proposal spanning from the ill-timing of its introduction on December 29, 2020, a lack of initial consultation and failure to notify affected parties, and by claiming their plan for dam removal has no fiscal impact,” the statement says. “Moreover, the MDMR and special interest groups who support the 2020 Amendment are engaging in double-speak, claiming on one hand that it’s merely a guidance document that isn’t legally enforceable while also stating that once adopted, it can be enforced by federal agencies.”
Removal of the four lower dams on the Kennebec would “result in the loss of stable water flows and the dams’ impoundments that support municipal and industrial water users, recreation activities for boating, floating, and fishing, all of which help provide local jobs and tax revenues,” the statement continues. “Brookfield Renewable is very much a vested partner in the continued river restoration efforts on the lower Kennebec, including $32 million in proposed investments for passage improvements at Lockwood and fish passage installation at Weston and Shawmut. The four lower Kennebec hydro facilities remain critical in helping Maine meet its carbon emissions targets.”
But the Department of Marine Resources report says dams affect diadromous fish species and prevent them from reaching all of their available high-quality habitats.
“Any potential lost generation at the lower Kennebec projects through a decommissioning and removal could be offset by strategic hydropower enhancements at projects that are not significant fish passage impediments and/or through new clean energy developments.”
The 170-mile long Kennebec River starts at Moosehead Lake and flows to the Atlantic Ocean. The Maine Department of Marine Resources and conservationists are looking at four dams owned by a Canadian company, including the Lockwood Dam in the foreground and the Hydro Kennebec Dam in the distance. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file
The river management plan, adopted in 1993, was developed to guide the restoration of anadromous fish in the river and resulted in removal of the Edwards Dam. The plan sought to restore and enhance populations of shortnose sturgeon, Atlantic sturgeon, striped bass, rainbow smelt, American shad and alewives to the river.
Justin Wood asked at the hearing what percentage of electricity generated in Maine comes from the four dams between Waterville and Skowhegan and whether wind or solar projects could be an alternative, to which Ledwin said he understands it is about 6.8%.
“There are solar projects in the area that are larger than those four projects that are being advanced,” he said.
Brookfield is part of the $100 billion Brookfield Asset Management, a global venture capital firm based in Toronto that owns 38 dams in Maine. It owns more than 5,300 renewable power-generating stations in 17 countries, the majority of them hydroelectric plants, and makes most of its money selling power to utilities.
Waterville City Councilor Thomas Klepach asked a few questions, including what the impact of dam removal would have on natural rock formations in the river at Ticonic Falls.
“I do think if you were to remove that dam, you could restore the falls,” Ledwin responded.
The Kennebec River and Shawmut Dam viewed from the River Road in Benton. Morning Sentinel file
In the comment section of the hearing, LaCroix said it is unusual for her to question such a proposal by the state because she is environmentally conscious and would love to see the river restored. But as a municipal leader, her first responsibility is to residents and taxpayers to make sure they are not unduly impacted, she said.
“I’m not necessarily against it completely, but I would like to see the state have some type of aid to communities that are significantly impacted by the potential removal of these dams,” she said.
Fairfield Town Manager Michelle Flewelling noted that the state rulemaking documents say the amendment would have no financial impact on municipalities and asked Ledwin to clarify why that was included. Ledwin reiterated that it was a guidance document for planning purposes and has no force of law. He acknowledged Flewelling’s claim that there would be a fiscal impact if the state moved to remove dams.
“I would agree with that,” he said.
Kyle Schaefer, a Maine member of the American Saltwater Guides Association, said he has been doing research and understands the economic implications of dam removal and the impacts on infrastructure, but he supports river restoration.
“There’s not a lot of options for these fish,” he said. “They’re very important. They’ve been here for thousands and thousands of years and I would like to see the restoration of this river.”
Kessel spoke to the Waterville City Council on Feb. 17 in an effort to convince members to reject the proposed amendment, but councilors voted to table the matter until they learned more about the proposal. That council is scheduled to once again consider the amendment at their virtual meeting Tuesday which is accessible via a link from the city’s website, www.waterville-me.gov, or from a livestream on the city’s Facebook page. Those wanting to comment or ask questions must contact Waterville City Clerk Patti Dubois by 5 p.m. Tuesday to receive Zoom login credentials.