This aerial view from Dec. 7, 2020 shows the clear waters of Branch Lake Stream mixing with the muddy Lower Union River. Credit: Courtesy of Eric Martin

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Dwayne Shaw is the executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation. Brett Ciccotelli coordinates the federation’s work on the Union River.

Recently, Brookfield Renewables, the owner of the Ellsworth and Graham Lake dams, authored a column that has angered locals and further muddied the waters regarding their intentions to comply with state and federal water quality and fisheries regulations. What appears clear to us is that Brookfield has decided its profits are at risk because its antiquated dams and highly problematic water management systems cannot be lawfully permitted under modern licensing requirements. Hydroelectric dams are licensed only every 40 years, and the old license has run out. Brookfield apparently does not like playing by today’s rules, versus those in place many decades ago.

The old rules were first established when concerns about fisheries and water quality, community and recreational shorefront development were often set aside. By way of example and context, in 1907 when the Ellsworth/Leonard Lake Dam was built without fish passage, debates about the legal use of dynamite by commercial fishermen in Maine were still underway. Human waste going into the Union River was untreated. Maine’s U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie, who authored the federal law that permits the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to license Brookfield’s dam operations — the Clean Water Act — was not yet even born, and neither women nor Native Americans had a legal right to vote. Concerns about fisheries destruction and clean water existed, but were not popular. We now know the shortsightedness of those dominant viewpoints of “the good old days.”

Times have changed, and while our environmental consciousness has grown, Brookfield seems mired in the past — at least when it comes to their treatment of the Union River and our community. As correctly stated by the Friends of Graham Lake and the Union River Salmon Association in a follow-up letter responding to Brookfield’s opinion piece, Brookfield is aware of the changes it needs to make and if it is unwilling to make those changes it will remain unwelcomed in the community.

Apparently, Brookfield had hoped to skirt or bend the rules to benefit their bottom line. Now, with what looks like buyer’s remorse, they have turned to threatening and divisive methods to try to separate the community and bully their way through the regulatory process. If they prevail, they will leave the Graham Lake community high and dry, the fish in pieces and the ecosystem shattered for the next half century.

In October, our staff and volunteers again collected many dead alewives and eels killed by the operation of the Ellsworth Dam, as we have done every year since we began monitoring in 2014. This dam lacks safe upstream fish passage and the turbines kill and maim fish moving downstream.

When Brookfield bought these dams they knew the Union River was home to endangered Atlantic salmon. Yet, Brookfield has continued to propose passage conditions that are so limited, the fisheries agencies that operate an Atlantic salmon hatchery on the Union River actually refuse to stock salmon in this river. The salmon from the Green Lake National Fish Hatchery are sent “away,” to more hospitable waters. We think this needs to change.

In Graham Lake and then downstream in the river itself, aquatic life is smothered by the thick mud that is continually suspended in the water by Brookfield’s refusal to permanently reduce its large drawdowns and to comply with the new requirements. These requirements are set forth in the modern statewide standards and also take into consideration the need to balance recreational opportunities on Graham Lake.

Brookfield may think thousands of dead alewives, eels and mussels, and a dark, unnaturally muddy river is something that Mainers just have to tolerate, but we know they can do better.

Brookfield needs to decide if they want to play by the rules or continue to try to scare and bully the community. They can become a responsible voice in the Union River watershed and Greater Ellsworth community when and if they decide that their financial bottom line involves truly meeting the needs of the public and the ecosystem. When they are ready to do that, we’ll be here to help.