Colin Woodard’s Jan. 3 article on Brookfield Renewable’s four Kennebec River dams between Waterville and Skowhegan brings much-needed attention to stalled efforts to restore endangered Atlantic salmon and other sea-run fish to Maine’s second largest watershed.

A Fairfield man casts a fly into a pool in the Kennebec River below the Shawmut dam. The National Marine Fisheries Service and Maine Department of Marine Resources recommend the dam’s removal.  David Leaming/Morning Sentinel, File

Today the Kennebec is a tale of two rivers. Downstream of the Lockwood Dam, the Kennebec and its tributaries teem with alewives, blueback herring, American shad and two species of sturgeon that have returned after the removal of the Edwards and Fort Halifax dams. More than 3 million river herring now return annually to the Sebasticook River to spawn, providing food that brings seals 50 miles upstream from salt water and attracts the East Coast’s largest concentration of bald eagles. Anglers below the Lockwood Dam can catch shad until their arms hurt.

Upstream of Lockwood Dam, it’s a different story. The fish lift at Lockwood simply doesn’t work. Some anglers catch more shad in a day than the lift passes in a year. In 2019, a study found that only 45 percent of tagged salmon released below the dam entered the fish lift. Some took a month to do so. The Maine Department of Marine Resources believes restoration will require 99 percent passage within 48 hours of reaching the dam. And Lockwood is just the first of four dams salmon need to pass before they reach the exceptional spawning and rearing habitat in the Sandy River.

Our organizations and others have been trying to get Brookfield and prior owners of these dams to address these failures for nearly two decades. In 2013, Brookfield developed an interim plan to improve fish passage at the four dams by 2019. That did not happen. Brookfield repeatedly asked for – and received – permission from the federal government to do nothing about the problems at Lockwood.

Time is running out for Kennebec salmon. The species is on the verge of extinction in the U.S., and federal and state agencies finally appear to have lost patience with Brookfield. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected Brookfield’s most recent Kennebec fish passage plan, and the National Marine Fisheries Service and Maine Department of Marine Resources recommend removal of the Shawmut Dam.

Spokesman Andy Davis told the Press Herald’s Woodard that Brookfield would “use science and engineering to make sure there are solutions for everyone and everything, for people and for fish.” That same promise was made back in 2013, a promise Brookfield never kept, and amounts to the same plan FERC rejected in July. Davis further claimed, “We’ve done it in other places and we think there’s a way to do it here.” That’s not true.

Fish passage at Brookfield’s Brunswick Dam on the Androscoggin River has been less effective than at the Lockwood Dam, moving just eight salmon in the last five years. Since 2009, Brunswick has passed more than 100 shad only once, though thousands swim in circles below the dam. At Brookfield’s dams on the Union River, only 10 salmon and one shad have passed the first dam since 2009. This, combined with perennial fish kills and persistent water-quality problems, has resulted in the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s denial of a water-quality certificate these dams need to operate.

The four dams on the lower Kennebec represent only 6 percent of Maine’s overall hydroelectric capacity, and their environmental impacts cannot be justified, especially considering that solar installations in the next five years will result in much more generating capacity than these four dams – even considering that solar generators run at full power less often.

The Kennebec was once the most productive river in Maine, with hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon. The fate of Atlantic salmon in the U.S. depends on restoring them in the Kennebec. Removal of these dams would give Atlantic salmon their best chance at survival and restore huge numbers of shad and river herring. Brookfield has no evidence of success anywhere for its proposed engineering solutions. Scientific evidence shows they will not work. Removal of the four dams would bring a great revival to the river and all the birds, fish and wildlife that depend on it. Given their small contribution to Maine’s renewable-energy capacity, these outdated dams should go.

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