AUGUSTA, Maine — A state policy shift that could lead to the removal of four Kennebec River dams is pitting Gov. Janet Mills and conservationists against the owner of the dams and some communities dependent on their tax value.
The proposed change from the Maine Department of Marine Resources is aimed at allowing species of fish — including the endangered Atlantic salmon — to reach upstream spawning grounds. It comes as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is doing a licensing review of the Shawmut Dam in Fairfield, one of four dams the state wants removed.
While Maine has no authority to remove the dam, the federal agency considers state management plans during its process, so the shift could lead to removal of the Hydro Kennebec and Lockwood Dams straddling Waterville and Winslow and the Weston Dam in Skowhegan.
The plan is being hailed by conservationists who led the historic charges to remove the Edwards Dam in Augusta in 1997 and the Fort Halifax Dam in Winslow in 2008. But the dams’ owner alleged in a February letter that the Mills administration fast-tracked the plan after unsuccessfully trying to broker a deal to sell the dams in question to a third party.
The state’s threshold would be nearly impossible to meet and would force the decommissioning of the dams through the federal process, said Miranda Kessel, a spokesperson for Toronto-based Brookfield Energy Partners. The massive power asset management company said it has spent millions in fish bypass efforts, most recently installing a $14 million fish lift at its Hydro Kennebec Dam in 2017.
But environmental groups argue that dams create too many dangers for fish even with those changes, resulting in high mortality. Nick Bennett, a staff scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, pointed to attempts to restore salmon in other places as proof that any restoration efforts will fail without dam removals.
His group was a party to a 1998 settlement agreement between Maine, the federal government and the prior owners of dams that required fishery restoration. He said while the new standards are “hard to meet,” they are fair and overdue.
“Fish lifts just don’t get the job done,” he said.
Mills seemed hopeful in a March 2020 letter to Brookfield that negotiations around the sale of the dams could be settled peacefully, saying “contentious administrative proceedings and litigation that draw public attention to the impacts of the projects” on fish would help no one. A request for comment from her office and the Department of Marine Resources was not returned.
It is unclear how quickly the policy would take effect after a public comment period ends Friday. The state has not consulted with the Marine Resources Advisory Council on the amendment — such plans require their input under state law — but plans to after public comment closes. The notice also said any economic effects are too “speculative” for the state to consider.
Brookfield has also pointed to the state’s climate goals in questioning the move. The Maine Climate Council, convened by Mills, recently adopted an ambitious plan aiming to boost the state’s use of renewable energy sources. The Department of Marine Resources argues power lost through decommissioning could be offset by “strategic hydropower enhancements at projects that are not significant fish passage impediments” or through large-scale solar.
The plan has drawn the ire of two Republican lawmakers from the area — Sens. Brad Farrin of Norridgewock and Scott Cyrway of Benton — who wrote a letter to the marine resources department last week saying the state “downplayed the importance” of the policy change in public communications about the management plan change.
The proposal has divided municipalities where the dams are fixtures. In Waterville, the City Council plans to endorse removing the Lockwood Dam, City Manager Stephen Daly said. While Brookfield pays $275,000 a year in taxes, it may not be realized until the dam’s license is up in 2036. The city, which is currently in the process of restoring its downtown through a multi-million dollar federal grant, sees potential recreation opportunities, Daly said.
But up the river, Fairfield Town Manager Michelle Flewelling is not as optimistic about the removal of the Shawmut Dam, the only structure currently being debated. The dam carries a $17.4 million property tax valuation and would cost the town $389,000 annually if removed.
“That’s not something that is readily available” to replace, Flewelling said. She was also skeptical recreational activities would be able to replace the lost tax revenue, saying the 7,000-person town would have to sell 195,000 fishing licenses per year to recoup it.
There is another concern about the proposal: Erica LaCroix, Winslow’s town manager, said the 2008 removal of the Fort Halifax Dam resulted in $1.1 million worth of costs that included the condemnation of six houses and the damaging of a bridge. Her community might not be affected for years, but that did not assuage her.
“It doesn’t make it a rosy picture for us,” LaCroix said. “All it does is give us a chance to prepare for any potential side effects.”