Atlantic salmon swim in a pool of the Sandy River in western Maine in this 2019 photo. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Department of Marine Resources

Gov. Janet Mills dug in on her administration’s proposal to increase fish-passage standards on the Kennebec River on Tuesday, saying the large dam manager at the center of the proposal should be able to meet state demands that the company says could lead to dam removals.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources is revising its river management plan to require dams to improve their fish passage methods to allow more fish, especially the endangered Atlantic salmon, to reach their spawning grounds at the Sandy River. At the same time, it is backing the removal of at least two dams and perhaps up to two more.

Those standards for fish passage would be “unachievable” and would force dam removal, according to Brookfield Renewable U.S., a subsidiary of a larger Toronto-based asset management company. But Mills dismissed that on Tuesday, saying Brookfield’s size — she specifically mentioned the company’s parent being partially owned by the nation of Qatar — should allow it to comply with the rules.

“If they want to come to the table, I’m always available to talk,” Mills said after a ceremonial maple tree tapping at the Blaine House on Tuesday.

The governor’s comments show how the relationship between the state and Brookfield has soured over the shift. Until October, Mills was looking to act as an intermediary between Brookfield and a third party interested in buying the four dams at issue between Waterville and Skowhegan. But Brookfield rebuffed such a deal and the company is now fighting the plan.

The state is also under fire for the process leading to the change. In a letter to two state senators, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said the change was “nothing more than a guidance document, although the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said the state plan would be a key factor in its decisions on the dams’ license renewals.

Those senators — Brad Farrin of Norridgewock and Scott Cyrway of Benton — accused the department of downplaying the importance of the change in a letter last week, saying it could have “an almost immediate and decidedly negative impact” with the Shawmut Dam in Fairfield currently up for review. A Senate Republicans spokesperson said Farrin and Cyrway had not received a reply to the letter yet.

Farrin said the state misrepresented the weight of its recommendation, particularly as the Shawmut Dam license is being reconsidered. He said the state should extend its comment period past Friday and do economic impact studies on what removal could mean. Not doing so could result in litigation, which Farrin said he would consider being involved in.

“If [the recommendation] carries the weight that I think it does, I think the department owes to the communities around here to consider its potential impact,” he said.

Entangling the situation further is the tension between the communities around the dams and skepticism from conservationists that anything short of dam removal could help restore the sea-run fish population in the Kennebec River. Fairfield, for example, would lose $389,000 in annual property tax revenue if the dam was removed.

Brookfield is required under a 1998 settlement to work to restore fishery populations, but state data shows relatively few fish get through the Lockwood Dam in Waterville and Winslow, the first of the four dams ahead of spawning grounds.

The company has spent $15 million in fish passage improvements and has committed $32 million to future efforts, said Brookfield spokesperson Miranda Kessel. She said the company was unaware of any fish passage that has ever resulted in the standards Maine is looking for. 

In the case of the endangered Atlantic salmon, it would mean fish would pass upstream through each dam within 48 hours of reaching it and 24 hours while headed downstream.

“We are confident we can meet the balanced needs of river users, fisheries and local communities, many of whom haven’t even been thought of by the governor or her staff,” Kessel said. “The people looking to impose these standards, contrary to public statements, know they only lead to one outcome: dam removal.”

The federal regulator rejected a species protection plan from Brookfield in July after the state said it failed to address concerns about protecting Atlantic salmon and other species. The company then got an extension for an intermediate plan that expires in 2022.

Fish passage can be successful. Thousands of fish make it through a Penobscot River dam in Milford on a lift and salmon appear to be making a comeback there. The problem is that salmon often encounter lengthy delays at the Lockwood Dam, causing them to waste energy needed to get upstream, said John Burrows, the executive director for the Atlantic Salmon Federation’s U.S. operations.

Getting through one is a challenge and getting through four makes restoration “impossible,” he said. So many fish try to get through the lift that they become stuck, resulting in delays.

“Those capacity issues limit the number of fish that can produce in the watershed,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the amount of money Brookfield Renewable has spent on fish passage.