Building a vacation home on an artificial lake can have pitfalls, as water levels rise and fall within certain limits, at the whim of whoever owns the dam. Waterfront property owners in Ellsworth are hoping to take some control over their summer shoreline, as the owner of two dams on the union river seeks a renewal of its federal licenses.
Ed Damm, of Bar Harbor, owns a camp on 8000 acre Graham Lake, where water is stored and released by a dam to power the turbines of the Union River Dam downstream. Last year, Damm said he had to wheel his boat more than 200 yards across Graham's dry lake bed after a drought, combined with high demand for power, prompted the Brookfield Renewable Energy Group to drop water levels by more than six feet.
"Some parts of the year we get flooded out and lose maybe 200 to 500 cubic feet of soil down the river, and there's more months of the year where it's kind of like a desert out there," Damm said.
The dams are owned by the Brookfield, which is in the process seeking relicensure with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to operate its power plant for another 30 years. The current license allows the company to draw down water levels at Graham Lake by nearly 11 feet to produce power on an on-demand basis at the Leonard Lake Dam in Ellsworth where Damm said native fish species have a difficult time swimming upstream to spawn.
"The pregnant three-foot eels trying to come back through the dam, trying to go through a turbine, it's terrible mess down there, it's slice and dice," Damm said.
Fish passage has also become an issue for conservation groups. Last week nearly 200 people attended an informational meeting in Ellsworth where city officials and Brookfield representatives discussed some of the common concerns voiced by area residents.
Brett Ciccotelli, a fisheries biologist with the Downeast Salmon Federation in Columbia Falls, said the relicensing process has opened a door to resolve some of the obstacles that have been affecting native fish species in the union river for generations.
"We have a river that has supported native wild Atlantic salmon and a whole host of other native sea run fish, and with the relicensing we have the unique opportunity to kind of be a part of that process and help assure that when there's new license issued, those fish that have been blocked since 1907 get a chance to get back into the river," Ciccotelli said.
In response to concerns raised by waterfront property owners on Graham and Leonard lakes, the Ellsworth City Council voted unanimously Monday night to apply for intervenor status in the FERC dam applications, despite concerns about the potential costs.
A spokesperson for Brookfield Renewable Energy, meanwhile, issued a written statement saying that the company will continue to balance its regulatory requirements, its environmental impact and its obligations to stakeholders, including the city of Ellsworth. The company said it is committed to being a good steward of the environment.