The Shawmut Dam on the Kennebec River in the Shawmut area of Fairfield on Tuesday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has issued a draft environmental assessment saying that decommissioning the Shawmut Dam in Fairfield is not a reasonable alternative to relicensing it, a view dam owner Brookfield Renewable Partners sees as a positive stance supporting its bid to relicense the dam.

The draft assessment, issued July 1, is one of the final steps in the relicensing process and the public has until Aug. 15 to comment.

Conservationists have argued for the removal of the Shawmut Dam and other dams on the Kennebec River to ensure the survival of endangered Atlantic salmon. Brookfield officials, however, argue that building or improving fish passages will be sufficient while continuing to provide clean power.

The 198-page draft assessment by federal regulators finds that “while dam removal would result in better upstream and downstream passage survival for Atlantic salmon, alosines, American eel, and sea lamprey compared to relicensing the project, the upstream and downstream fish passage measures included in the staff alternative with mandatory conditions would nevertheless enhance fish passage over existing conditions.”

With an upstream fishway built in 2018 at the Hydro-Kennebec Project and upstream fishways planned at the Lockwood Dam in Waterville and the Weston Dam in Skowhegan, “providing upstream fish passage at Shawmut would provide swim-through passage for all species of anadromous fish and allow adult salmon access to an additional 33 miles of mainstem habitat between Lockwood Dam and Abenaki Dam,” the assessment reads.

Through spokesperson Miranda Kessel, Brookfield said in a statement the assessment “finds there are appropriate plans in place to protect the environment and recovery efforts for diadromous fish, while also retaining the social, economic, generation, and recreation benefits the Shawmut Dam currently provides.”

But conservation groups, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Trout Unlimited, said Tuesday they see several problems with the federal assessment.

The Natural Resources Council is among four groups to have filed notices of intent to sue Brookfield over alleged violations of the Endangered Species Act at the four dams it owns on the lower sections of the Kennebec River, including Lockwood and Shawmut.

The groups have long advocated for dam removal, maintaining endangered salmon and other fish have a difficult time passing through the fish lift at the dams before getting to the Sandy River, where the salmon travel to spawn before returning to the ocean.

The draft reports how Brookfield did studies to inform the location of a fish lift for the Shawmut Dam, and designed it in accordance with agencies’ direction to achieve a 95% upstream passage effectiveness standard for Atlantic salmon. The performance standard was the same standard applied at six hydropower projects on the Penobscot River, it reads.

If the project were issued a new license as proposed, with the additional staff-recommended measures, it would continue to operate while providing enhancements to fish and aquatic resources, and protection of recreation, cultural and historic resources in the project area, according to the assessment.

“Based on our independent analysis, we find that the issuance of a new license for the Shawmut Project, with additional staff-recommended environmental measures, would not constitute a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,” the assessment reads.

It notes the Maine Department of Marine Resources is considering amending its 1993 Kennebec River Resource Management Plan to recommend removal of Shawmut and Lockwood dams “to promote the recovery of diadromous fish in the Kennebec River system,” but “Maine DMR has not yet filed the final plan for Commission approval as a comprehensive plan for the waterway.”

Dam removal, it says, would eliminate the impoundment and associated lake-type fishing and boating opportunities now available above the dam. It would also eliminate the Hinckley Boat Launch.

Dam removal would result in the permanent loss of a historical resource that is eligible for listing on the National Register and the impoundment is the only source of water for Sappi North America’s Somerset Mill in Skowhegan, it reads.

“Removing the dam could lower the water levels to a point that the mill’s intake would not be functional and the diffuser for discharging its wastewater would be too close to the water surface to function properly,” according to the assessment.

GROUPS REFUTE ASSESSMENT

Contacted on Tuesday, Jeff Reardon, Maine brook trout project director for Trout Unlimited, said he sees two major problems with the commission’s analysis, which he noted is only a draft and a lot of people are expected to comment on it before the Aug. 15 deadline. It is common, according to Reardon, for the commission’s draft decision to be reversed in the final document, as occurred before the Edwards Dam was removed in Augusta.

Trout Unlimited and multiple state and federal agencies asked the commission to analyze removal of the Shawmut Dam as an alternative to relicensing so the environmental impacts of Brookfield’s proposal could be compared against dam removal, which was recommended by several agencies as the best outcome for salmon and other sea-run fish, according to Reardon.

The Shawmut Dam on the Kennebec River in the Shawmut area of Fairfield on Tuesday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Multiple state and federal fisheries agencies also asked that the commission conduct an environmental impact statement.

“Endangered adult salmon need to pass all four dams to reach their spawning habitat in the Sandy River, and their juvenile stage, smolts, need to pass all four dams on their way back to the ocean,” he said. “We believe the impacts of these four dams need to be analyzed as a group and their cumulative impacts on endangered salmon and on other native fish must be assessed and considered as a package.”

The commission’s conclusions are “pretty bleak” for both endangered salmon and the economic future of the dam, according to Reardon.

The commission concluded that if the dam were licensed as proposed, the benefits for adult Atlantic salmon would be an increase from the current average of 35 adult spawners per year reaching the Sandy River to an improved total of 36 spawners — after the dam is relicensed and a new fishway constructed, Reardon said.

The commission also concluded that if licensed as proposed, including ‘mandatory conditions’ from other agencies the commission must include in the license, the Shawmut Dam would lose money, according to Reardon. The commission has projected the annual project cost to generate power at Shawmut at $1.4 million more than the cost to buy replacement power, he said.

“In other words, there are less-expensive ways to generate this power, even if we ignore the dam’s impacts on endangered salmon and other fish,” Reardon said. “For comparison, 500 spawners is the minimum considered essential in the Merrymeeting Bay Significant Habitat Recovery Unit to even consider down-listing salmon from endangered to threatened.”

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS

Reardon said the NOAA Fisheries has to review the proposed license at Shawmut, and the proposed amendments at the other two dams, to determine whether they are consistent with the Endangered Species Act and recovery of Atlantic salmon.

Like Reardon, Nick Bennett, staff scientist and healthy waters director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, says the commission ignored the requests from the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Maine Department of Marine Resources to do an environmental impact statement rather than an environmental assessment.

An environmental impact statement is a far more detailed study that requires looking in-depth at the cumulative impacts of all four of the Brookfield dams between Waterville and Skowhegan, which is much more relevant than just looking at Shawmut in isolation, he said.

The commission also ignored the fisheries service and Marine Resources recommendations for removal of Shawmut and did not evaluate either the costs of dam removal or fish passage benefits of dam removal, according to Bennett.

He said the commission disregarded state and federal recommendations on passage standards for sea-run species, other than salmon, and recommended no upstream or downstream standards for alosines, which are river herring and shad, and sea lamprey, which are critical because salmon do best when they lay their eggs in old sea lamprey nests.

“This does not recognize that restoration of species, other than Atlantic salmon, is necessary for salmon recovery and are part of critical habitat,” Bennett said. “The justification that increasing passage effectiveness for these species may negatively impact passage for Atlantic salmon is particularly outrageous.”

The commission, he said, recognizes that relicensing is going to continue to harm salmon, even with the mandatory conditions it is willing to propose. Fish become injured or die as downstream migrating juvenile and adult kelts pass through turbines or spill routes with survival rates of less than 100%.

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