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State Considers Taking Over Dam on Popular Fishing Lake

Alfred Crabtree
Flickr/Creative Commons
East Grand Lake

Gov. Paul LePage wants the state to take over a small dam in northern Maine that straddles the border with Canada on the St. Croix River.

It’s one option to prevent its total abandonment by the paper company that now owns it. But the proposal is meeting skepticism from some lawmakers, and opposition from some environmentalists.

East Grand Lake is a 22-mile impoundment created more than a century ago by the Forest City dam, a small, wooden structure that still controls the lake’s water levels. The dam has two gates on the U.S. side of the border and one on the Canadian side, and it’s owned by Woodland Pulp and Paper, which also owns a mill downstream on the St. Croix River in Baileyville.

The lake is a popular fishing and recreation destination. But the company says it doesn’t need the dam to run the mill and an associated hydroelectric facility. So, late last year, it asked federal energy regulators for permission to “surrender” the U.S. side of the dam — that is, abandon ownership and pull the gates.

“That means that in front of my camp, it’s going to be a nightmare,” said Sam Greenlaw, who has owned a camp on a shallow cove on the lake for decades.

Greenlaw told the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee this week that if the gates are opened, water levels would go down by at least six feet, turning his shoreline into an expansive mudflat or worse.

“The value of my camp has got to disappear. There’s no question in my mind about that. So it’s a big deal. Now what is the impact on the state? Dramatic,” he said.

Other camp owners, Maine guides and fishermen agree. They’re facing lost access, lost fisheries, lost tourism dollars and a way of life. Even the company says it doesn’t want that outcome.

“Woodland Pulp has stated it vehemently and repeatedly that we have absolutely no interest, intent or desire, to see East Grand Lake dewatered,” said Scott Beal, Woodland Pulp and Paper’s government liaison.

But Beal said the company cannot continue to bear the costs associated with the dam’s license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, estimated at $6 million over the next 30 years.

“Impoundment studies, fishery studies, there’s a prescription in there for fishway improvements, archaeological studies, recreational improvements — you get the picture?” he said.

So the LePage administration is negotiating with the company and the Legislature to have the state take over the dam. Under the proposal, which surfaced late last week, the state would own the U.S. side of the dam, but Woodland Pulp and Paper would continue to operate it for flood control, recreation and ecological values for 10 years or more.

Beal said that would allow FERC to drop its license requirements, cutting the company’s operation costs in half.

“We believe the rough cost, on an annualized basis, is pretty close to $100,000 a year to operate and maintain,” he said.

Chandler Woodcock, the state’s commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said it makes sense for the state to take over the dam and preserve the lake’s many values.

“I don’t want to see the result of the surrender. I don’t think anybody does want to see the result. We’re trying to solve the problem in a way that I think is very reasonable,” he said.

Landowners and guides testified in favor of the deal. But committee members and some others raised concerns. Would the state still have to go through a lengthy and costly FERC process? And what would it cost the state to run the dam once the contract with Woodland Pulp and Paper ended?

Nick Bennett of the Natural Resources Council of Maine is worried the state would overlook efforts to re-establish alewife migrations past Forest City. And he told the committee that the FERC surrender process is the best way to ensure all interests are involved.

“What does NOAA and Fish and Wildlife Service have to say about that? What does the Province of New Brunswick have to say about that? What does the Canadian government have to say about that? They have to listen to all those voices, which is something this committee can’t do in the next week,” he said.

Republican state Sen. David Woodsome of North Waterboro told Woodland Pulp lawyer Matt Manahan that even though he supported the deal’s goals, he was unhappy with the last-minute push for a deal.

“It seems like there’s a lot of missing parts here. And Mr. Beal got up here and, ‘Well I don’t have that information,’ and you got up here and, ‘I don’t have that information,’” Woodsome said.

“I have any information you want, I’ll give it to you right now,” Manahan replied.

Woodsome seemed unconvinced.

The deal’s proponents and opponents will get another chance as early as this week, when the committee takes up the proposal again.

This story was originally published on June 7, 2017 at 5:18 p.m.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.