The 170-mile long Kennebec River starts at Moosehead Lake and flows to the Atlantic Ocean. The Maine 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 candidates for removal. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

WATERVILLE — The City Council voted 5-1 Tuesday to support the state’s proposal to amend the Kennebec River Management Plan intended to create a healthier river which could ultimately mean removal of dams from Waterville, Fairfield and Skowhegan.

But Mayor Jay Coelho said late Tuesday in an email that he plans to veto that vote.

“I refuse to believe that we walk around with more technology in our pockets than when they put men on the moon, but can’t  figure out how to move fish,” Coelho said. “If we can’t make something that works for the fish and protects the livelihoods of the human life that will be affected, someone’s blowing smoke up our asses or they aren’t really trying. Either way we need to figure it out.”

The amendment by the Maine Department of Marine Resources seeks to expand the fish species targeted for restoration in the river to include all of Maine’s native diadromous fish, or species 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.

Discussion Tuesday revolved around a finding by state scientists that fish ladders and fish lifts do not work well in helping fish, including shad and the endangered Atlantic salmon, to successfully pass through the dams to get to spawning waters upriver and back to the ocean.

Most councilors agreed Tuesday that a vote to support the resolution does not necessarily mean everyone is in favor of dam removal, and the vote did not mean they support such a move. Councilor Rick Foss, R-Ward 5, was the first to say he could not support the resolution.

But Councilor Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, pointed out that the state is simply updating its biological rules for fish migration. If scientists want to update the science, people should let them, according to Francke.

“While it may ultimately end up in dam removal, at this point, it’s simply the scientists updating the science,” he said.

Councilor Thomas Klepach, D-Ward 3, echoed Francke’s comments, saying supporting the resolution was nonbinding and simply states that the council recognizes the state’s own experts.

“This is not a decision to remove dams here — it is a decision to recognize one of the informed opinions in a complex matter,” Klepach said.

Brookfield Renewable Partners owns the Lockwood Dam in Waterville, the Hydro Kennebec Dam, Shawmut Dam in Fairfield and the Weston Dam in Skowhegan. The state is focusing on those four dams in its river management plan. Brookfield representative Miranda Kessel asked the council on Feb. 17 to oppose the proposed state amendment, but councilors voted to postpone voting on the request until they could learn more about it.

At that meeting, 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, said the river management plan is really a guidance document to set goals and objectives.

Any decisions to take major action such as removing dams 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.

Francke noted Tuesday that that commission is the only entity that has the power to determine whether dams are removed.

“This is something that is going to happen in a faraway place by bureaucrats who don’t care about whether we have a power generation station in our backyard or not, and they are going to look at the science …,” Francke said.

If communities are negatively impacted by dam removal, it is up to state legislators to see what kind of mitigation the state can do to make up for those losses, according to Francke.

Ledwin told councilors Feb. 17 that  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.

The state river 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. The plan sought to restore and enhance populations of shortnose sturgeon, Atlantic sturgeon, striped bass, rainbow smelt, American shad and alewives to the river.

Brookfield said Monday in a statement prior to a state public hearing on the amendment that removing the four lower dams on the Kennebec would “result in the loss of stable water flows and the dams’ impoundments that support municipal and industrial water users, recreation activities for boating, floating and fishing, all of which help provide local jobs and tax revenues. Brookfield Renewable is very much a vested partner in the continued river restoration efforts on the lower Kennebec, including $32 million in proposed investments for passage improvements at Lockwood and fish passage installation at Weston and Shawmut. The four lower Kennebec hydro facilities remain critical in helping Maine meet its carbon emissions targets.”

But Nick Bennett, staff scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said at Tuesday’s council meeting that in general, fish ladders and fish lifts do not work well. All salmon spawning grounds are above the four dams between Waterville and Skowhegan, and if people want to restore the endangered Atlantic salmon, it has to be done in the Kennebec River. There’s no way to do it with the dams in place.

“There’s no record of restoring Atlantic salmon in a big river anywhere in the world over one dam,” Bennett said.

He said fish have a difficult time getting through fish lifts and ladders because the opening is small and they have a hard time finding it. They get tired and if they are delayed three or four days, they either turn around and go out to sea or they die from lack of energy.

Coelho said the fact that nowhere in the world are there fish ladders or lifts that work is a big problem.

“How come nobody hasn’t gotten together and created something that works?” he said, asking Bennett where the bottleneck is.

“The bottleneck is in the biology of the fish,” Bennett said, adding that fish ladders or lifts built for Atlantic salmon or shad in the U.S. and Europe “simply don’t get anything like normal passage.”

State Rep. Bruce White, D-Waterville, urged the council to delay voting on the resolution, saying there would be a detrimental impact from dam removal on property taxes and businesses such as Sappi whose mill is on the river and employs some 700 people.

Bennett said those supporting dam removal have heard Sappi’s concerns. He said Sappi is an extraordinarily innovative company that is an important player in the state, country and internationally. Those supporting dam removal absolutely would not support measures that would thwart Sappi’s ability to get water from the river, he said.

“And we believe that a solution to their water intake can be found,” he said, adding that rivers that flow more freely make it much easier for companies such as Sappi to meet water quality standards.

Council Chairman Erik Thomas, D-Ward 7, said that people must be honest and recognize that either fish restoration is the most important thing or all the other considerations such as loss of tax revenues are the most important. One has to frame the discussion by saying there’s no way to restore the fisheries without removing the dams.

“Then the question becomes, ‘What’s more important?'” he said.

Winslow Town Manager Erica LaCroix voiced concern at Monday’s state public hearing, saying she doesn’t necessarily oppose the amendment, but her first responsibility as a municipal leader is to the community and taxpayers.

Meanwhile, Winslow resident W. Elery Keene, who also spoke at the hearing, said Tuesday in a statement to the Morning Sentinel that it is possible to use fish hatcheries to raise fish to put into the ocean and let them grow in the ocean instead of removing dams.

“We need to find other ways than burning fossil fuel to get the electricity that we need,” Keene said. “And it should be a priority to do that, in my opinion, before it’s a priority to remove dams to make it possible for fish to go up the river. Those dams have been there a long, long time, and we still seem to be able to get quite a lot of salmon off the ocean, despite those dams having been there.”

“The state,” he continued, “should be considering the benefits and problems of the dams in relation to the economy of the fish that people want to harvest, but it should also take into consideration the damage to the economy and to the climate of removing these dams.”

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