Four fishermen cast for stripers June 24, 2020, in the Kennebec River just below the Lockwood Dam in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

WATERVILLE — A Canadian company that owns dams on the Kennebec River in Waterville and Winslow was unsuccessful this week in convincing the City Council to oppose a plan to change the state’s current river management plan.

That plan amendment seeks to expand the fish species targeted for restoration in the river to include all of Maine’s native diadromous fish or those that use both the rivers and ocean. It also would update descriptions of the physical, biological and ecological conditions in the watershed and revise goals, objectives and actions for restoration in the river and provide reasons for decommissioning and removing dams.

The council on Tuesday voted 5-2, with councilors Tom Klepach, D-Ward 3, and Rebecca Green, D-Ward 5, dissenting, to table indefinitely voting on whether to support or oppose the amendment. Some councilors said they want to explore the matter further and glean more information about it. Council Chairman Erik Thomas, D-Ward 7, noted that the council was not discussing whether to remove dams — they were merely discussing the proposed amendment.

Miranda Kessel, a spokeswoman for Brookfield Renewable Partners, which owns the dams, told councilors that approving the amendment would lead to dam removals and set a bad precedent. Dam removals would affect residents, businesses and industries along the river and could impact the amount of money the towns receive in taxes from the dams, according to Kessel.

Brookfield had approached the city asking that the council oppose the amendment, according to City Manager Steve Daly, who said Wednesday that he, Thomas and Mayor Jay Coelho decided to research the request. Daly asked Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources,  to send a representative to Tuesday’s council meeting to explain the amendment and answer questions. The state had scheduled a public hearing on the amendment to be held earlier Tuesday in Augusta, but that hearing was canceled due to the bad weather, according to Daly.

Daly sent out a note to councilors before Tuesday’s council meeting saying that via an agreement with Keliher, the representative to attend the council meeting would not take input or answer questions from anyone other than Waterville councilors so as not to violate public hearing notice regulations.

“Once he and the council are finished interacting, he will leave the meeting,” Daly’s note said. “At that point, all those attending and wishing to speak will be recognized, beginning with Miranda Kessel, representing Brookfield Renewable, owners of the dams in question. None of the discussion will be on the state’s record.”

Sean Ledwin, director of Sea Run Fisheries and Habitat Division of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, which researches, monitors and works to restore fish species, told councilors the river management plan is really a guidance document to set goals and objectives. The Lockwood and Hydro Kennebec dams, as well as the Shawmut Dam in Fairfield and the Weston Dam in Skowhegan, are the focal area of some of the state’s planning, he said.

Any decisions to take major action such as removing dams would not happen overnight and would take five to 10 years and a lot of input, according to Ledwin. Management plans for all rivers must be submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission which regulates dams, he said.

Ledwin said fish migration can be disrupted or stopped because of dams, leading to population decline or extinction. Removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta and the Fort Halifax Dam in Winslow resulted in an explosion of sea run fish and was a great success, he said. The dam removals also have helped and been very compatible with a lot of community work.

“I think the dam removal in Augusta was really a testament to how those things are compatible with community development, recreation,” Ledwin said.

While Atlantic salmon is nearly extinct in the U.S., one of the largest strongholds for the fish is the Kennebec River, above the Lockwood dam, he said. While there is a fish lift, or elevator, at the dam that is supposed to help the fish go upriver to spawn, it doesn’t help salmon and works for very few shad, according to Ledwin.

“It was touted as a really sophisticated way to pass fish, but it’s really proven to not be effective for Atlantic salmon,” he said.

He said his department has to truck fish above the four dams to spawn and the adults and juveniles they produce have a “bumpy ride, going back down to the ocean.”

Kessel claimed the proposed Maine Department of Marine Resources amendment would advance dam removal and that would set a concerning precedent for Maine businesses, municipalities and residents, especially given the current economic situation.

“All together, we urge you to oppose the amendment in its current form,” she said.

Brookfield has a shared goal in ensuring fish and river restoration but an inclusive, transparent approach must be taken and a good faith effort pursued in ensuring balanced outcomes, she said. Dam removal would mean loss of jobs and loss of tax income for Waterville and Winslow, according to Kessel. Also, people who have property along the river would be negatively affected, she said.

Brookfield plans to improve the fish lift at the Lockwood Dam, she said.

Councilors had a lot of questions for both Ledwin and Kessel, with Coelho asking Ledwin what would happen to the water level below the Lockwood Dam if it were removed.

“If the Lockwood were removed, the water level would drop until about half-way between Lockwood and the Shawmut project,” Ledwin said, adding that a hydraulic control between them would raise the water level again.

“It would actually restore the natural falls there,” he said.

The 170-mile long Kennebec River starts at Moosehead Lake and flows to the Atlantic Ocean. The state department of marine resources and conservationists are looking at four dams owned by a Canadian company, including the Lockwood Dam in the foreground and the Hydro Kennebec Dam in the distance, as obstructions to the free flow of fish up the river. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

Coelho cited the water level as a concern, as well as the tax implications for the city if a few hundred thousand dollars were lost in tax revenue. But he ultimately said he could not oppose or support the amendment without more research.

Councilor Rick Foss, R-Ward 5, said he was concerned about people who bought property along the river and could be affected by water levels changing. Ledwin sought to reassure him that the change would not be significant.

“It doesn’t just go dry, and the controls on the river are still upstream,” he said.

Klepach said he strongly supports efforts to restore Atlantic salmon migration. The Kennebec River has 13 species of diadromous  fish, representing the highest number of diadromous fish in any body of water on earth, he said.

Green asked Kessel what she meant by saying the change to the river management plan would set a dangerous precedent.

Kessel said people representing the Kennebec Coalition have, for 20 years, had a goal of removing dams and they want to build momentum to support dam removal based on unrealistic fish passage performance standards.

“To downplay it — I don’t agree with that stance,” she said.

Meanwhile, Thomas noted that, even if the amendment were adopted, that wouldn’t necessarily mean the dams would be removed. Ledwin agreed, saying that “in general, the guidance documents are just documents.”

The Kennebec River Resource Management Plan, adopted in 1993, was developed to guide the restoration of anadromous fish in the river and resulted in removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta. The plan sought to restore and enhance populations of shortnose sturgeon, Atlantic sturgeon, striped bass, rainbow smelt, American shad and alewives to the river.

David Hedrick, an officer for the Kennebec Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited, said he hoped the council wouldn’t oppose the amendment. Brookfield’s main goal, he said, is to provide dividends to investors, not fish passage. Willie Grenier, who said he has been fishing below the Lockwood dam for 21 years, agreed.

“What price do we pay to save the heritage of Atlantic salmon?” he asked.

Nick Bennett, staff scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, encouraged councilors to talk to Augusta City Manager Bill Bridgeo and former Mayor Roger Katz about what dam removal has done for that city, including helping to revitalize the river and the downtown.  He urged the council to take plenty of time researching the issue and its history. He also noted that when Waterville was incorporated, there were no dams on the river.

Brookfield is part of the $100 billion Brookfield Asset global venture capital empire based in Toronto and owns 38 dams in Maine. It owns more than 5,300 renewable power-generating stations in 17 countries, the majority of them hydroelectric plants, and makes most of its money selling power to utilities.

In other matters Tuesday, Coelho read aloud a proclamation recognizing February as Black History Month. He also read aloud another proclamation recognizing Katie Jane Brier. He said that, at age 8, she established a nonprofit company, “Katie Jane Rocks,” and has helped provide more than a dozen scholarships to Camp Tracy that enable children from low-income families to attend the summer camp, free of charge.

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