The 170-mile long Kennebec River starts at Moosehead Lake and flows to the Atlantic Ocean. The Maine Department of Marine Resources is taking a step back from its amendment to the river plan that calls for the possible removal of four dams owned by a Canadian company, including the Lockwood Dam in the foreground and the Hydro Kennebec Dam in the distance. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

Amid the flurry of public comments from municipalities and a lawsuit regarding a proposed amendment to the Kennebec River Management Plan, Maine Department of Marine Resources’ Commissioner Patrick Keliher told the Morning Sentinel on Thursday afternoon that the department is pulling the amendment due to a “process issue.”

The proposed amendment was aimed at improving fish passage for Maine’s diadromous fish, or species that live in both river and ocean, to spawning areas up the river. Fish such as Atlantic salmon travel up the Kennebec to get to the Sandy River. The department received over 1,100 public comments, the most the agency has ever seen.

“After we conducted the comments on the proposed rule and … considered our statutory authority to implement a fisheries management plan, we decided to withdraw that proposed rule,” Keliher said. “We want to make it clear this does not change the goal of the agency related to fishery restoration on the Kennebec.”

After reviewing the policy, the agency consulted with legal counsel. Those conversations resulted in finding a “process issue” which makes the situation “have to go back to the beginning,” Keliher said.

Maine has established itself as a nationwide leader in restoration of river systems and the sea-run fish that spawn in them. The 1999 removal of Augusta’s Edwards Dam lowered the Kennebec, and some supporters of the present amendment point to it as a sticking point for a potential positive impact. Others look at the 2008 removal of the Halifax Dam in Winslow on the Sebasticook River, which impacted six homes and forced the relocation of graves from a historic cemetery.

“We have now the largest run of river herring on the East Coast, and that’s a fraction of this watershed,” Keliher said. “There’s still a long ways to go here. Our fisheries management plans are advisory. They don’t have the weight that people think they do.”

The amendment included the potential removal of four dams along the Kennebec River: the Shawmut in Fairfield, Weston in Skowhegan and Lockwood and Hydro Kennebec Dams in Waterville. All of the dams are owned by Brookfield Renewable Partners. The amendment also included updates and revises goals for the watershed and river restoration, in addition to providing reasons for the decommissioning and removal of dams.

Fairfield’s Shawmut Dam license expires this year and will be up for continuation during proceedings before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

The process to carry out the amendment did not involve FERC. It was not legally enforceable and was intended as guidance. However, the department does intend to submit its final fisheries management plan to FERC down the line, which FERC will consider along with other information when conducting dam licensing deliberations.

“People think because we submit a plan that says ‘dam removal,’ then that’s going to happen,” Keliher said. “We have all kinds of cases where we submit comments to FERC and nothing happens. … We don’t have to consult with them, but we do because it is our statutory authority and mission to conserve, restore and protect marine resources.”

Waterville’s City Council voted to send a public comment in support of the plan, but municipal governments in Winslow, Fairfield, Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Madison all submitted public comment in opposition to the plan. Chambers of Commerce in Waterville and Skowhegan also are against the plan. The dams account for more than 250 million kilowatt-hours of renewable energy yearly.

The Waterville Council supported the plan with the understanding “it’s simply scientists updating the science.” Supporters of dam removal cite the potential for positive environmental impacts and increased recreational opportunities should dams be removed. Those opposed to the plan cite irreversible economic impacts the region would face should the amendment be adopted including losing millions of dollars in property tax revenues. For example, the Fairfield Council wrote in its letter that Brookfield’s assets contribute $17.4 million in value to the town. Sappi’s Somerset Mill in Skowhegan also raised a concern about water intake.

Brookfield itself sued the state last week, hoping to stop the amendment process entirely. Filed in Maine Superior Court in Augusta, the lawsuit requests a preliminary injunction on what the company calls an “unlawful” process. A Brookfield spokesperson said Thursday that there are no updates to the timeline of the court case, but the filing claims the Department of Marine Resources is not consulting with its sister agencies and not following the original plan, which was enacted in 1993.

“It’s incumbent upon us to just now take a step back, take the time necessary to review the comments on the draft … and determine what the best move forward will be,” Keliher said.

When going through the process next time, the department plans on setting up stakeholder meetings with municipalities and businesses, including Brookfield.

“The most success we have in this state with fisheries restoration is when we stop looking at it dam by dam and look at it more holistically,” Keliher said. “Brookfield has investors they have to deal with, a bottom line. I get that.

“We’ve dealt with that in many conversations around hydropower. But having them come to the table and finding a way to work with the state and stakeholders, it is more comprehensive than a project by project approach.”

Keliher referenced experiences working on plans for  the Presumpscot and Penobscot rivers.

“There’s a lot of benefits in fisheries restoration. Will it include dam removal? It could include dam removal,” Keliher said. “Maybe there’s a way that some of the projects would stay, some will go, but let’s get some buy-in from the company. I would invite them to come back to the table and continue these conversations more holistically.”

The vast amount of public comments took Keliher by surprise.

“There are concerns, and we’ve got to find a way to address what those concerns are,” Keliher said. “I don’t want members of the public who are invested in fisheries restoration in general to be disappointed and want to walk away. We made a procedural error, and we’re going to figure out how to move forward.”

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