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 — Mayor Jay Coelho vowed Tuesday to veto a Waterville City Council vote supporting the state’s proposed amendment to its Kennebec River Management Plan, but by Thursday he had changed his mind.

Coelho issued a statement early Thursday evening saying he could immediately veto the council vote, but it “would be an exercise in futility as there would not be enough votes to sustain a veto, forcing the council to call a special meeting to override the veto … before the 26th of March when the public comment period ends.”

“I could be underhanded and veto the resolution next week, not giving the council an opportunity to overturn in time to be added to the public comments at the state level,” Coelho wrote. “The latter would be a disservice to the Council and our city as a whole because our voices would be left out of the conversation at the state level.”

The council had voted 5-1 Tuesday to support the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ amendment to its river plan that is intended to create a healthier river and could ultimately mean removal of dams in Waterville, Fairfield and Skowhegan.

Councilor Rick Foss, R-Ward 5, was the lone dissenter, and Councilor Flavia Oliveira, D-Ward 2, had lost a connection to the virtual meeting and was unable to vote on the resolution.

Coelho said after Tuesday’s meeting in an email that he planned to veto the council 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 proposed river management plan amendment 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.

State scientists have determined that fish ladders and fish lifts do not work well in helping fish such as shad and the endangered Atlantic salmon to successfully pass through dams to get to spawning waters upriver and then return to the ocean.

While dam owner Brookfield Renewable Partners of Canada has said it plans to design a better fish lift at the Lockwood Dam in Waterville, Nick Bennett, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, told the council both Brookfield and prior dam owners have had years to do so but have not.

Waterville Mayor Jay Coelho has decided not to veto the City Council’s vote backing the amendment the Maine Department of Marine Resources wants to add to the Kennebec River management plan. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file Buy this Photo

Brookfield maintains that dam removal would hurt the economy and cause job loss. Some area town officials say communities would lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual tax revenue.

Most councilors agreed Tuesday a vote to support the resolution did not necessarily mean they were in favor of dam removal. Coelho questioned at the meeting why no one anywhere had developed a fish lift or ladder that could make it easier for fish to pass through dams and asked where the bottleneck was. Bennett said the bottleneck is the biology of the fish.

State scientists and other experts say the endangered Atlantic salmon go to the Sandy River, upriver of the Weston Dam in Skowhegan, to spawn, and then go back to the ocean. The dams, they say, prevent proper fish passage and if they can’t get through the fish ladders or lifts, they either die or go back to the ocean.

They also say that if dam removal is considered, it would take years to get input from all sides before removal were to occur. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the only entity that can decide if dams will be removed.

Coelho wrote in his emailed statement Thursday the river management plan is “nearly 30 years old and probably should have been updated long before now.”

“In simple terms we’re discussing conservation of fish species like Atlantic Salmon and Shad and how to get them up River so they can spawn like its spring break  (pre COVID),” he wrote. “What should be an innocuous discussion will make for some uncomfortable conversations with far reaching implications in the future. Not only for Waterville, but the region. The majority of the Waterville City Council supports the amendments to the management plan while other municipalities and stake holders are opposed.

“Winslow, I know we have a fun sports rivalry, we’re neighbors. We hear you. Dam removal will cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars in yearly revenue burdening your residents and ours financially. Fairfield, the other town next door, I’m also listening to you. I understand what removal of dams could do to the region, its industries, and the negative impact it could have on our region. As leaders in this region, Waterville has an important role to play and we do so deliberately and with respect to our regional partners. Waterville, you should know that you have elected a thoughtful group of human beings that care deeply for their city, its residents and the region as a whole.”

Coelho said he wanted to be clear that “Waterville is not in favor of dam removal at this time.”

“There is way too much information that is not available to us,” he wrote. “This is part of a much larger discussion that we will all have during the next decade. At the end of the day, if we are all honest with ourselves, some bureaucrat far away from here will make the final decision.

“I would like the region to know I will include with my signature a statement that will outline many of your concerns along with our own and ask that the state and bureaucrats that will ultimately make this decision take into account the financial impact this could have on all of us, and they should be prepared to come with answers in the future if they ever ultimately decide dam removal is required.”

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