The Ellsworth Dam, owned by Brookfield Renewable subsidiary Black Bear Hydro Partners, spans the Union River and holds back Leonard Lake. The company is seeking to renew its federal operating license for the 60-foot high dam, which was built in 1907, until 2057. Credit: Mario Moretto

ELLSWORTH, Maine — A proposal from a hydroelectric company to wait more than a decade after its local dam license is renewed before it makes improvements to its upstream fish passage system is being panned by an environmental advocacy group.

In the plan, submitted Sept. 28 to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as part of an application to renew an operating license for two dams on the Union River, Brookfield Energy proposes to design and install new upstream Atlantic salmon passage measures at the lower of the two dams within 15 years of a decision by FERC to renew the license.

Brookfield Energy owns and operates the two dams, one that forms Leonard Lake near downtown Ellsworth and another that forms Graham Lake a couple of miles north of downtown, under one FERC license. The license for the dams, each of which is roughly 60 feet tall, was last renewed in 1987. Brookfield is seeking to renew the license for 40 years, until 2057.

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The company’s proposed delay in improving the dams’ upstream fish passage, and the lack of any plans to stock significant numbers of young salmon upstream, “is sorely insufficient and fails to address the timely, meaningful and necessary upgrades to these 110-plus-year-old facilities,” Dwayne Shaw, executive director of Downeast Salmon Federation, said earlier this week.

Samantha Edwards, spokeswoman for Brookfield, said Thursday in an email that the existing passage system at the lower dam, which consists of trapping fish at its base and then transporting them by truck to Graham Lake, appears to be sufficient for the volume of migratory fish that show up below the dam each year.

Over the past 30 years, a total of little more than a dozen adult wild salmon have returned from the ocean to the Union River below the dams, the company said in its proposal. Brookfield does transport larger volumes of other fish upstream each year, including hundreds of thousands of river herring.

Since the last time FERC renewed the license for the dams, Atlantic salmon have been added to the list of species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“Any necessary improvements to the upstream facility would be determined once sufficient numbers of Atlantic salmon are returning to the river,” Edwards said Thursday

Edwards said Brookfield’s plan after getting the license renewed is to focus on making modifications and improvements to the dams’ downstream fish passage facilities. Conservationists have cited multiple reports of dead and wounded fish below the lower dam, which was built in 1907, as evidence that the downstream passage is sorely inadequate.

Shaw said that, based on the size of migratory fish populations in other eastern Maine rivers, the salmon federation believes that the number of salmon, alewives, eels and other such species could be much higher in the Union River if Brookfield were required to make significant improvements to both its upstream and downstream fish passage systems.

If hundreds of thousands of young salmon were stocked in the Union River each year, as they are in the Penobscot and Narraguagus rivers, it would help restore the river’s returning adult population, he said. If more returning alewives were transported upstream and then better protected going back down, the number of returning adults each year could be in the millions instead of fewer than 700,000.

“Eastern Maine is enormously dependent upon fish and fishing, as is the entire ecosystem,” Shaw said. “This river can easily produce and should be producing over 10 times the alewives as it has for the past 30 years, and 1,000 times the number of salmon. A license issued, as proposed, would lock [Maine citizens] in to a bad deal for the next 40 years.”

Edwards said that though the proposal does include salmon stocking measures, it allows for stocking plans to be developed and implemented if needed.

Shaw also has said the state should exercise authority it has under the Clean Water Act to issue a water quality certificate for the Union River, which could require Brookfield to maintain water levels in both Graham and Leonard lakes that mimic natural fluctuations. Many shorefront residents on Graham Lake have complained about the lake’s reduced water levels, saying that it has affected their property values and enjoyment of the lake.

“Drawing it down even three or four feet can be devastating” ecologically, Shaw said Thursday.

Edwards said Brookfield’s maintenance of Graham Lake water levels have been in compliance with the dams’ FERC license, which was issued many years before Brookfield acquired the facilities in 2013. The license requires that water flow between the two dams be kept above a certain level “to provide minimum flow and downstream fish passage,” she said.

The federal commission is expected to issue a final environmental assessment on the proposed license renewal by sometime in March 2019.

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A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....