The fate of a century-old, international dam — and thousands of recreational camps that depend on it — will be up for consideration at the East Grand School in northern Maine on Wednesday. Federal regulators are taking up the thorny question of how the dam might be decommissioned without significantly lowering the lake it has created.
More than 100 years ago, a simple wood-and-stone dam was built on the St. Croix River in Forest City, straddling the U.S. and Canadian border. The result was a 16,000-acre impoundment now known as East Grand Lake.
The lake is home to some 2,000 shorefront camps, numerous loons and other wildlife. It also has a first-class reputation as a freshwater fishery that draws bass and salmon anglers from around the world.
“To compare it to something spiritual I would say that East Grand Lake and the upper St. Croix waterway — it’s my cathedral,” says Christian Connelly, piloting a small speedboat upstream into a marshy wilderness that extends miles and miles through the St. Croix’s watershed.
Connelly has summered on the lake since he was a baby — 54 consecutive years — and his parents have been retreating here for even longer.
“It’s my basilica, it’s a holy place and I would hate to see anything ever happen to it. It means that much to me,” he says.
But now, the downstream paper mill that owns the dam wants to surrender it, potentially drawing down the lake 6 feet or more and turning much of what residents see as a piece of paradise into more of a mudflat.
“When we talk about drawing down 6 feet of water - you can imagine we wouldn’t be fishing here at night, we wouldn’t be water skiing, we wouldn’t be enjoying the rafts and the floaties,” Connelly says, “but we would be enjoying the mud.”
“We don’t want anything bad to happen to East Grand Lake, which I think we’d all agree is an international jewel,” says Scott Beal, a spokesman for Woodland Pulp and Paper, the Chinese-owned mill about 45 miles downstream from the dam, in Baileyville.
The company is in a bind, he says, because the dam plays only a minor storage role in operations of the mill’s hydroelectric plant, which periodically needs to be licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. To meet the requirements for a pending new license, the company would have to improve fish ladders, perform archaeological studies and make other investments that Beal says would cost about $6 million, which is why the company has arrived at this conclusion.
“We think that this dam needs to stay in place and it’s better off under someone else’s ownership,” he says.
But some critics say that while Woodland may not need the dam for making electricity, it still needs to control water flows to ensure that it can dilute pollution from the mill. And just this summer the company agreed to pay fines to the state for violating pollution standards.
Beal says the company can get enough water elsewhere.
Former Gov. Paul LePage and lawmakers had sought a state takeover of the dam’s ownership, and as part of the deal, the mill agreed to continue basic operations and maintenance. But FERC ultimately rejected the proposal.
Now FERC is convening a special “technical” meeting to consider what FERC spokeswoman Celeste Miller says are several options.
“Whether there are alternative modes of operation for the project that could significantly lower the project’s impact on downstream generation. Another component is whether there are other methods of implementing the license requirements in an economically efficient manner. And finally whether there are decommissioning plans that would meet the needs of the stakeholders,” she says.
Many in East Grand Lake are flummoxed by the idea that a drawdown is on the table.
“I can’t imagine that the government or anyone involved with this would think that’s a good idea,” says Jami Lorigan, who with her husband, Bob, owns Rideouts Lodge, where back in the day L.L. Bean came to stay and fish.
On this night it’s bustling for Sunday dinner in a dining hall that looks out on a 250-foot dock, which, they say, would be left high and dry if the dam gates were permanently raised, or the dam removed.
“I mean ever since this place basically was settled it’s been used by people. It was settled as a recreation area and it’s always been that way. So to change that is just unfathomable, I think,” Lorigan says.
The dam itself is fairly modest affair, given its outsize role in an international controversy.
“It’s called a rock crib dam. It’s creosoted timbers with rock holding it all in place,” says David Townsend, president of the Chipuneticook Lakes International Conservancy,
On the Canadian side of the border, Townsend points out that two of the 15-foot dam gates lie in the U.S., and one in his native Canada. He’s hopeful that a bilateral solution might be found.
“There’s talk now the premier of New Brunswick and the governor of Maine might get together somehow to create a binational commission that might control the operation of this dam,” he says.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Janet Mills says she and New Brunswick’s new premier, Blaine Higgs, who has roots in Forest City, have spoken briefly about the issue. But neither office provided further comment.