Federal regulators are seeking public input on whether two dams on the Union River in Ellsworth should be allowed to continue operating.
The dams can generate as much as 8.9 megawatts of electricity annually, but opponents say they kill tens of thousands of fish every year and are managed in such a way that they leave the popular Graham Lake, upstream, drained of water.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has opened up a 60-day public comment period on a controversial application to relicense two dams on the Union River in Ellsworth.
The hydroelectric dams, owned by Black Bear Hydro, have a combined generation capacity of 8.9 megawatts and would be re-licensed for another 30 years, according to FERC.
The re-licensing application is for two dams each roughly 60 feet tall, one of which was built in 1907 and forms Leonard Lake in central Ellsworth and the other of which was built in 1923 and forms Graham Lake on the city’s northeast limit. The re-licensing application has drawn the attention of conservation groups and shorefront residents of Graham Lake who say the design and operations of the dams are not environmentally friendly.
On Friday, FERC issued a 60-day notice for the public to submit comments or other materials about the renewal application. Comments on the application can be filed at ferc.gov and are due April 9. This fall, the public will get the opportunity to comment on a draft environmental assessment that FERC is expected to issue this summer.
The dam relicensing will be discussed this week at a Union River Fisheries Coordinating Committee meeting scheduled for 10 a.m., Wednesday at Ellsworth City Hall, according to Dwayne Shaw, executive director of Downeast Salmon Federation
The federation has said the dams have inadequate upstream and downstream fish passage and, as a result, kill thousands of fish each year. Property owners on Graham Lake say water levels are kept too low, draining water out of sight at some “shorefront” camps.
The upstream passage system involves trapping fish at the base of the dam in downtown Ellsworth and then transporting them by truck to Leonard and Graham lakes, according to Shaw. Downstream passage at both dams involve spillways that, he said, are estimated to kill “tens of thousands” of fish each year.
“This is a very primitive setup that they have,” Shaw said Friday.
He added that the status of Atlantic salmon, which now is listed for protections under the Endangered Species Act, likely will have an impact on whatever new fish passage requirements FERC decides to impose.
Shaw said the Clean Water Act gives the state the authority to issue a water quality certificate for the Union River, which could require Black Bear Hydro to maintain water levels in both lakes that mimic natural fluctuations. This could help reduce turbidity in the river, which would make it more hospitable to fish, and would help boost water levels in Graham Lake, which would reduce erosion.
“It would allow vegetation to grow around the perimeter of the lake,” Shaw said.
A spokeswoman for Brookfield Renewable Partners, a subsidiary of Brookfield Asset Management that owns Black Bear Hydro, wrote Monday in an email that FERC is taking an “exhaustive” look at the dams’ environmental impacts as part of reviewing the relicensing application.
“We value accountability, partnership and open communication and are dedicated to managing and mitigating the impacts and risks associated with our operations with an overall goal of continual improvement,” Samantha Edwards said. “Brookfield Renewable will continue to collaborate with state and federal agencies on a Species Protection Plan to improve fish passage both upstream and downstream at both facilities for the term of the license.”
She added that Brookfield regularly communicates with Ellsworth city officials and several Graham Lake property owners about the lake’s water levels. Aside from an unexpected equipment malfunction, the lake’s water levels have been in keeping with the firm’s FERC license requirements.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect date for when the public comment period will close.