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Businesses, Conservationists Debate: Does Restoring Salmon To Kennebec River Require Dam Removal?

Flickr/Creative Commons
An Atlantic salmon in an exhibit at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Earlier this month, state regulators backed off a proposed plan for managing the Kennebec River, whose cool upstream waters conservationists see as critical for the recovery of endangered Atlantic salmon.

The plan included recommendations that the river's four hydroelectric dams be taken down — a move the dam's owners and other stakeholders say could wreak economic havoc.

As the state begins a new stakeholder process, some are looking to successful dam removal efforts elsewhere in Maine that have restored historic sea-run fish populations and even encouraged new economic activity. But prospects of a similar outcome for the Kennebec are murky at best.

A few hundred years ago, Atlantic salmon made their annual pilgrimage up the Kennebec by the hundreds of thousands. These days, it's more like the tens, and they need help to get past four hydroelectric dams owned by Brookfield Renewable Partners, a Canada-based company.

"And those salmon are trucked by the state of Maine — Brookfield as the licensee picks up the tab — and they drive them up to the Sandy River, where they want to be to spawn," says Jay Seyfried is a compliance specialist for Brookfield. "It's right around 30 fish a year. Last year we actually picked up about 50 salmon, which was great, it was one of our bigger catch years."

Those numbers show why the species was placed on the Endangered Species List in 2009. And this dam in Fairfield, called the Shawmut, has become a flashpoint over salmon recovery, because it is up for federal relicensing this year.

Some regulators, including Maine's Department of Marine Resources, say Brookfield is overdue to design a new protection plan — possibly to include dam removals — in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The company’s interim protection plan for the salmon expired in 2019; federal and state regulators rejected its proposal for a new, permanent plan as inadequate. Since then trucking has remained the only way salmon can get upstream to the Sandy River.

But Brookfield says regulators want to set the bar too high, and its latest plan to employ fish elevators at all four dams will meet the act's requirements.

"There's not a fish passage in the world that is going to satisfy DMR or everyone, no matter what we do. But we're going to try to do what we can as best we can to meet those goals," Seyfried says.

"It is close to impossible to see recovery of salmon and maybe harder to see recovery of shad without one or more dams being removed," says Jeff Reardon, a project coordinator at the Maine Council of Trout Unlimited, one of several conservation groups that together make up the Kennebec Coalition.

Reardon says elevators may get fish past any particular dam, but a series of manmade barriers is inherently more stressful. And the still waters of impoundments, such as the 1,600-acre one behind the Shawmut dam, he adds, can easily warm to temperatures that are beyond the fish's comfort zone.

"We don't see that working, the cumulative effects of four dams on upstream passage and downstream passage are not likely to result in salmon being able to sustain themselves in this river," he says.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has ultimate say over the dams. Federal environmental agencies and Maine's Department of Marine Resources have told FERC that Brookfield's proposals are inadequate.

DMR says that bringing salmon back to self-sustaining levels — at least 2,000 spawning fish a year — may not be possible without removing the Shawmut dam.

The agency also points out that the dams produce less than half a percent of the state's electricity generation. But some stakeholders say the Mills administration is working against the grain of its own green energy goals, at a time when it is encouraging Central Maine Power to build a major transmission line to Canada's dam system.

"It's kind of interesting thinking of bringing hydro-power from Canada through, while also having a conversation about removing hydro-power from the state," says Christine Almand, Skowhegan's town manager.

The community lies just upstream from the Shawmut dam, as does a Sappi paper company mill which depends on it for water management. Sappi recently said it might have to close the mill if the dam is removed — and, as Almand notes, Sappi and Brookfield together make up a quarter of the Skowhegan's tax base.

Many riverfront communities joined Brookfield in complaining that DMR was moving too fast to adopt plans that called for dam removal.

"We'd like to see successful fish passage. I think the goals of many different groups and interests could be met, possibly without dam removal," Almand says.

After receiving more than a thousand comments — and a legal complaint from Brookfield — the DMR earlier this month dropped its initial proposal for managing the river. Agency Commissioner Patrick Keliher says he's hopeful that a new stakeholder process will lead to a kind of grand solution. That could include dam removal, but also find replacement renewable generation sources for Brookfield and assistance for Sappi as well.

Keliher points to other such efforts on the Presumpscot, Sebasticook and Penobscot rivers.

"Those are just some really great examples of what can be done with river restoration, fisheries restoration, and the towns and communities coming together to look at how they can benefit their own communities. These things are not mutually exclusive. They work well together. We need to take a step back and look at the situation holistically. It might mean dam removal, it might mean something different at the end of the day. But we need to look at all those things and take them into consideration," he says.

Brookfield officials say previous confidential talks about selling the dams to a conservation group broke down over their fair market value. And more recent efforts by the Mills administration to restart the negotiations foundered amidst some acrimony.

FERC could set a new dynamic in motion later this month, when it is expected to ask federal scientists for a comprehensive review of just what the prospects really are for salmon recovery in the Kennebec River.

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.