Black Bear Hydro, which owns and operates two dams on the Union River in Ellsworth, has resubmitted its application to the state for water quality certification. The firm is required to get the certification from Maine Department of Environmental Protection in order to renew its federal operating license. Credit: Bill Trotter

An energy firm that owns a pair of dams in Ellsworth is proposing to reduce the degree to which it could lower water levels on Graham Lake if it gets its federal operating license renewed.

Black Bear Hydro, a Maine-based subsidiary of Canadian firm Brookfield Renewable, has resubmitted its application to the state to certify the dams’ effect on the water quality of the Union River. Black Bear Hydro has to get water quality certification approval from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in order to renew its operating license for the dams with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In its new application, Black Bear Hydro is proposing to limit the amount it is allowed to reduce levels in Graham Lake to less than six feet, from roughly 104 feet above sea level to 98.5 feet above sea level. In its prior application, it had proposed a drawdown range of nearly 11 feet, from 104 feet down to roughly 93 feet.

The degree to which Black Bear Hydro has lowered the level of Graham Lake at times has been a point of criticism for people who say federal regulators should demand physical and operational improvements at the two dams as a condition for renewing their operating license. The way Black Bear Hydro manages fish passage at the lower of the two dams, which holds back Leonard Lake near where the river passes through downtown Ellsworth, also has come under fire by critics.

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The lower dam is used to generate power with four turbines, while the upper dam is used solely to control water flow downstream to the lower dam. The federal 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.

Shorefront property owners on Graham Lake say that dramatic seasonal reductions in the lake’s water level have affected the enjoyment and value of their properties. The reductions, which now can be nearly 11 feet, also adversely affect the water quality and ecology of the lakes and river, critics have said.

Brett Cicotelli, a fisheries biologist with the Downeast Salmon Federation, said this week that the group thinks the maximum allowable drawdown on Graham Lake should be less than what Black Bear Hydro is now proposing.

Dropping the lake’s levels by nearly 6 feet, without advance warning, “is not going to cut it,” Ciccotelli said. “We’re pretty adamant that a [maximum] drawdown of 4 to 3.5 feet is what is needed.”

Last fall, in a draft environmental assessment, staff at FERC wrote that Graham Lake’s water levels should be maintained between 98.5 and 103 feet above sea level, which is a range of 4.5 feet.

Samantha Edwards, spokeswoman for Brookfield Renewable, said Tuesday in an email that the company revised its proposed drawdown limits because it “recognizes the challenges of the [water quality certification] in connection to the current operations.” It also has revised its proposed minimum seasonal flows for each dam for April 1-30 and from July 1 through Dec. 31 of each year from 105 cubic feet per second to 125 cubic feet per second.

“This is why we have revised our proposal to better align with FERC’s proposal [last fall], including a higher seasonal minimum flow and a revised drawdown limit that preserves the ability to generate clean, renewable hydropower for the people of Maine,” Edwards said.

Kathy Howatt, hydropower coordinator for the Maine DEP, said Tuesday that by resubmitting its water quality certification application to the state, Black Bear Hydro has extended the deadline by which the department has to make a decision by another year. The state’s new deadline for deciding what kind of water quality requirements it may impose on Black Bear Hydro is March 20, 2020.

Howatt said DEP is not planning to hold any additional public meetings on the company’s proposal, but that comments can be sent to or mailed to: Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Land Resources, 17 State House Station, Augusta, Maine 04333.

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....