Small dam owners have a window of opportunity to generate hydropower and aid fish migration.

The Bangor Daily News recently ran an article about meetings the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) planned to hold in Maine to discuss small dams that impede Atlantic salmon migration. I thought: These dams could provide hydropower in addition to being refurbished with fish ladders.

The article started with these statements:

“In the ambitious effort to revive Maine’s Atlantic salmon runs, the $50 million campaign to remove or bypass three major dams on the Penobscot River has received the lion’s share of attention. …

“But salmon and other sea-run fish face another 700 dams that block or impede their access to rivers, streams and tributaries throughout the three watersheds in Maine where the federally protected fish are found.”

NOAA planned these public meetings “to reach out to landowners who have these other dams on their properties.” These meetings were held in Brewer on Aug. 6, Augusta on Aug. 15 and Machias on Aug. 18.

NOAA’s website explains the agency’s desire to help small dam owners overcome the threat of “illegally taking salmon,” which technically occurs when a dam hinders migration.

Salmon in the Penobscot, Merrymeeting and Downeast watersheds are federally protected, and NOAA is ready to help facilitate and streamline the application processes to install fishways if the owners wish to keep their dams. It also will help owners understand how removing dams would put them in compliance with federal laws regarding salmon migration.

Dave Bean, a fisheries biologist with NOAA in Orono, explained further in an email: “The process or plan we are describing here would be for non-federally permitted private dam owners who are interested [in] complying with environmental laws, but don’t have the resources to get started.”

Two federal agencies, NOAA and the Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC), become involved when small dam owners would like to add a fish ladder or fishway into a retrofit of their dam to provide hydropower.

NOAA can help work out a voluntary plan for a dam with a fishway. If the dam owner wishes to retrofit the dam to generate power, then FERC, which licenses hydropower dams, becomes involved. FERC also will make sure that the retrofit includes an appropriate fishway to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

These dams need not be hindrances to sea-run fish. A retrofitted dam with a properly installed fish ladder could let sea-run fish continue upstream and and also could add many megawatt-hours of electricity to the Maine power grid — to keep in Maine.

Maine is one of only five states in the country that gets 50 percent or more of its power from renewable resources. That half of our power comes from three sources: Hydropower contributes about 54 percent; biomass, about 44 percent; wind, 1.8 percent.

If even 500 of Maine’s 700 small small dams were added to the mix, the amount of hydropower would increase significantly.

And, unlike wind projects and other large power projects, these dams would not create the massive grid of new power lines and substations.

For years, the public dismissed the threat of electromagnetic fields from power grids and substations, but studies have shown that families living near these structures exhibit higher rates of cancer than those who do not.

Do we want to be a state where we have to worry about these sorts of things, or do we want to be a state where the power of flowing water is harnessed to provide renewable energy?

NOAA is concerned about the sea-run fish being able to migrate upstream. I believe most of us in Maine are thrilled to see the rivers cleaned up and the huge old dams removed, but we lost hydropower with every large dam that was removed.

Hydropower has a long, proven history in New England.

Maine needs an effort to restore small hydro projects, and the owners of these 700 small dams could represent the first step by refusing to abandon them and/or remove them.

The cost of refurbishing the dams and adding good fish ladders would not seem to be prohibitive, given the scale of the projects. The Department of Energy has some funding available for green energy projects, but its website was unclear if this includes low-head dams.

Years ago, a contractor for whom I worked put in a fish ladder at the dam at Fort Andross in Topsham/ Brunswick. Many people go to that fish ladder to see the runs of the sea fish migrating upstream in the Androscoggin River.

What a wonderful experience it would be for young and old to be able to view such a migration of sea-run fish on smaller dams throughout the state.

The time is ripe for new hydropower in Maine. With so many residents objecting to wind power, Maine has an opportunity to serve both the energy dynamic and the fisheries activities of sea-run species.

Merrylyn Sawyer graduated from the University of Maine with a wildlife degree. She has worked for various conservation-minded organizations: Nature Conservancy, RESTORE: The North Woods and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

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