November 30, 2021
Eighteen years ago, I lived in central Maine. I used to whitewater canoe on the Sandy River, gliding over its freestone bed and through its pristine, clear water. At one time it was one of the most prolific Atlantic salmon nurseries in the United States, but now four dams on the Kennebec River make the Sandy—a tributary—inaccessible to salmon.
Brookfield Renewable Partners, a hydroelectric juggernaut based out of Toronto, Canada, operates and/or owns around 5,300 power-generating plants worldwide. They own and operate the four offending dams on the Kennebec, from north to south the Lockwood, Kennebec, Shawmut, and the Weston dams. All are between Waterville and Skowhegan, Maine.
“There is no downstream [spawning] habitat south of the Waterville dams—in the entire watershed,” says Nick Bennett, staff scientist and healthy waters director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM). He argues that without passage to the Sandy’s spawning territory, wild Atlantic salmon in the eastern U.S. face imminent extinction.
“The Kennebec was once the most productive spawning Atlantic river in the eastern U.S., based on ledgers from the mid-1800s. The river used to support runs in the hundreds of thousands, in addition to runs of shad and herring, in the millions,” says Bennett.
In 2020 only 51 salmon made it beyond the Lockwood Dam in Waterville, a town situated on the Kennebec between Augusta and the Sandy. Brookfield’s solution to the problem was almost humorous in its viability: Collect running salmon in holding tanks and load them in trucks and transport them upstream. There is no evidence that this technique has ever been successful. In addition, their operating permit mandated that they erect functional fish passages, which they failed to do.
This set of barriers has not only cut deeply into the Atlantic salmon population, which, at one time, was rooted in the Kennebec as its life source, but other species such as shad and river herring.
The salmon and other diadromous fish that thrive in the Gulf of Maine play a role in the general food web. These rivers need to be sending literally billions of baitfish into the Gulf to support populations of cod and other species. Without this migration, populations of many other species of fish have suffered.
In 1999 the Edwards Dam on the lower Kennebec River was demolished in the name of fish conservation. And it worked. A flood of alewives, eels, and herring ran up the river. Since 2009, according to the NRCM, 36 million alewives have reached spawning habitat upstream in the Sebasticook River. And as a corollary, the largest concentration of bald eagles on the East Coast followed suit.
This success has proven, in no uncertain terms, that dam removal works. But the salmon still can’t reach the Sandy due to the impasses.
Brookfield argues the dams are valuable and should stay, despite their disrepair and inefficiency, but according to NRCM, “The sum of authorized capacity of all four dams in the lower Kennebec River is 6.4% of all hydropower in Maine and accounts for 0.43% of the annual electricity generation in Maine. Half of Maine’s current hydropower capacity comes from nine large dams that aren’t in migration areas, and the projected solar build-out in Maine in the next five years will provide five times what the Kennebec dams generate annually.”
Local Opposition to Maine Dam Removal
But it’s not just Brookfield opposing dam removal. Some local communities along the Kennebec, including Skowhegan, Norridgewock, and Madison, do not support dam removal, citing loss of tax revenue for their towns and employment for their residents.
The removal of these dams has proved complicated, but is rooted in a 1998 agreement between the Kennebec Coalition, a collection of conservation groups, and Brookfield, that insisted on building “a comprehensive settlement governing fish restoration, for numerous anadromous and catadromous species, that will rapidly assist in the restoration of these species in the Kennebec River . . . ” The italic emphasis was in the original document. To date, there is no evidence that any of this is moving forward. Of note, this agreement was signed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which oversees these dams.
To execute the removal of these four obstructions, the State of Maine, through its agency the Department of Marine Resources (DMR), sought to halt the FERC renewal of Brookfield’s permits to operate the dams. They did this through the release of a new Kennebec River Management Plan Amendment which, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine “ . . . recognized the need for removal of at least two of the four dams” [to continue restoration of the Kennebec River.]
Brookfield’s permits to operate the dams are granted initially for 50 years and then need to be renewed for 30- to 50-year terms. The DMR attempted to deny the renewal of these permits, based on the fact that Brookfield has failed to make the dams compatible with the upstream and downstream migration of Atlantic salmon from the Gulf of Maine, which are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Brookfield’s position was that the regulations put in place by the original agreement were not feasible or realistic in their scope. These regulations included the construction of functional fish ladders.
It’s well known that fish passages rarely contribute significantly to the restoration of migratory fish, but regardless, Brookfield failed to build functional fish ladders in the more than 30-year period from when the regulations were levied, and agreed to by Brookfield.
The DMR stated that Brookfield was overdue in construction of these upgrades, which are required to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The problem is that FERC, not the DMR, holds the authority to mandate dam removal, and so far they have not insisted upon it.
The DMR, backed by Governor Janet Mills, is trying to enforce the agreement in an arena they aren’t, under law, authorized to do.
Bennett explained one of the many complications that occurred: “Due to procedural errors, between the attorney general, Brookfield, and the DMR, the project was halted for reconsideration. The Brookfield dams are under the supervision of the federal government and are granted, in turn, leases. States weigh in, but do not enforce, dam removal. In a way, we are at the mercy of the feds, and Brookfield doesn’t seem concerned about levying a death blow to Atlantic salmon in order to save a faltering project.”
Under the heat lamp of a lawsuit, Governor Mills and the State of Maine withdrew the amendment to Brookfield’s operating agreement that would force removal of the dams. This isn’t to say the State of Maine has abandoned restoration of Atlantic salmon and many other migratory species to the Kennebec. It did, however, send them firmly back to the drawing board. The entire approach to overcoming Brookfield’s grip on the upper Kennebec has to be redrafted.
The DMR is now in the process of generating a new plan that will hopefully allow for restoration of a meaningful salmon migration, but one that would also be deemed acceptable for not only Brookfield, but the towns that are stakeholders in this battle. This would include the upstream hamlets along the Kennebec that claim it is critical for their economies. Skowhegan’s Town Manager Christine Almand told NPR, “We’d like to see successful fish passage. I think the goals of many different groups and interests [including Sappi, a large upstream paper mill who claims they’d shutter if the dam was removed] could be met, possibly without dam removal.”
In response to Brookfield’s inaction, three conservation groups announced on May 13, 2021 that they intend to sue Brookfield for violating the Endangered Species Act. The Conservation Law Foundation, Maine Rivers, and the NRCM note in their press release that “Brookfield’s authorization to ‘take’ Atlantic salmon trying to pass upstream and downstream through the dams expired in 2019, and since that time the company has continued to kill fish, in clear violation of the ESA.”
The press release starts the clock on the lawsuit, which under the Endangered Species Act mandates a 60-day waiting period from announcement to the time a suit can be filed.
“State and federal agencies have already called out Brookfield’s negligence,” the press release states. “In July 2020, the federal government rejected Brookfield’s proposed Species Protection Plan (SPP) for Atlantic salmon. At the beginning of 2020, the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) both opposed Brookfield’s relicensing application for the Shawmut Dam and recommended removing it. In addition, DMR and NMFS have both told Brookfield for years that the fish lift at the Lockwood Dam does not pass either salmon or American shad effectively, but Brookfield has done nothing to remedy the problem.”
Only removal of these four dams will give Atlantic salmon a fighting chance to recover. Even if this did work, it would take decades for Kennebec River salmon to recover.
It appears that in a tangle of legal red tape, the embattled theater where the DMR, Brookfield, and Mills fought continues to smolder as everyone gathers their strategies for the next round of closely watched proposals that could save, or decimate, what was once the strongest run of migratory salmon on the eastern seaboard.
“Central Maine has the opportunity to become an example of one of the most inspiring river conservation projects in the world,” said Bennett. “The question becomes, will it choose to do so?”
Brian Irwin is Fly Fisherman’s New England field editor. He is a medical doctor and lives in North Conway, New Hampshire.