A high view of the Union River and its confluence with Branch Lake Stream on April 17. Credit: Courtesy of Downeast Salmon Federation

A plan to relicense two hydroelectric dams in Ellsworth would threaten Union River water quality and fish habitats because the dam operators would allow water levels in a lake north of Ellsworth to get too low, according to 14 commercial fishermen, sportsmen and environmentalist groups.

Those groups wrote a letter dated Monday that petitions the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to hold a public hearing on the plan proposed by Black Bear Hydro, a Maine-based subsidiary of Canadian firm Brookfield Renewable, so they can air objections to it, said Brett Ciccotelli, a fisheries biologist with the Downeast Salmon Federation.

In a plan revision submitted on April 11, Black Bear sought to limit the amount it is allowed to reduce water levels in Graham Lake to less than six feet, from roughly 104 feet above sea level to 98.5 feet above sea level. A prior plan had submitted a drawdown range of nearly 11 feet, from 104 feet down to roughly 93 feet.

Black Bear needs a new water quality certification from DEP to renew the dams’ operating license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. 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 was last renewed in 1987. Brookfield is seeking to renew the license for 40 years, until 2057.

The new drawdown level “really doesn’t cut it,” Ciccotelli said Wednesday.

“We think that application doesn’t meet water quality standards, and we want to ensure that the process is as public as possible,” he said. “We think that it is really important that we have this public hearing so the discussions are out in the open.”

[After complaints from shorefront homeowners, Ellsworth dam operator proposes lowering lake water levels less]

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

The heavier drawdowns inhibit growth of underwater plants in the shallower areas of Graham Lake. They also increase the amount of silt, a pollutant, into the river, smothering fish and aquatic insects, Ciccotelli said.

Brookfield Renewable revised the drawdown level to address the concerns of critics such as the 14 groups, spokesman Andy Davis said.

[Camp owners want changes after Graham Lake becomes a field of mud]

The revised drawdown “preserves flood control capabilities and the ability to generate clean, renewable hydropower for the people of Maine,” he said.

Davis hinted that the organizations protesting the project could be mollified by other aspects of the company’s new plan, which will include “fish passage modifications [that] will be a part of the overall solution at the Ellsworth project.”

The petitioners are the Downeast Salmon Federation, Conservation Law Foundation, Atlantic Salmon Federation, Downeast Conservation Network, Frenchman Bay Conservancy, Georges River Trout Unlimited, Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, the Maine Council of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Maine Elver Fishermen Association, Maine Rivers, Friends of Graham Lake, Trout Unlimited, Union River Sporting Club and Union Salmon Association.

The organizations say they’re best able to show the role the Union River plays in Hancock County and describe the two dams’ negative effects.

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“In contrast, [Black Bear’s] primary function and expertise is the operation of the hydroelectric dam facility, one of several it owns or operates throughout the state, to generate and sell electricity often without, or with limited regard, to the resulting adverse environmental impacts on water quality and biodiversity,” the letter states.

The letter was mailed to Kathy Howatt, hydropower coordinator for the DEP’s Bureau of Land Resources. She did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

If granted, the public hearing will likely be held in mid-summer, Ciccotelli said.

Related: A paddle on Graham Lake in Ellsworth

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BDN reporter Bill Trotter contributed to this report.