Officials from the Maine Department of Marine Resources and Brookfield Renewable U.S. rescue Atlantic salmon at the Lockwood Dam on the Kennebec River in Waterville on June 15, 2021. Credit: Courtesy of Steve Hirshberg

Representatives of The Nature Conservancy met with the owner of four Kennebec River dams in 2017 to discuss how to improve fish passage at one of the structures in Fairfield. The parties could not agree, kicking off political strife that boiled over this year.

At the heart of the issue is the Atlantic salmon, an iconic fish that once dominated rivers across the country but whose wild population is now limited to Maine. The Nature Conservancy and other environmentalists have long seen dam removals as key to getting salmon to their spawning ground up the river. The conservancy has been successful in similar efforts before, notably partnering with groups to remove the Veazie Dam on the Penobscot River in 2012.

Negotiations broke up in 2020. The dams’ owner sued the administration of Gov. Janet Mills when it tried to change a state plan in a way that could force the dams’ removal, then conceded it did so under the wrong law. The lawsuit alleged that the Maine Department of Marine Resources submitted that plan in retaliation to the failed sale talks. Environmental groups are now threatening a lawsuit against the dams’ owner, saying salmon are not being protected.

The Nature Conservancy’s role in the sale talks has not yet been publicized and the overall struggle is just the latest over the future of dams in Maine, where even successful removal efforts have taken years. Time is now running out to put pressure on the owners as a crucial federal licensing process moves ahead. The dam’s owner may have more leverage if talks continue, since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently found the salmon can be protected without removing the Fairfield dam.

“Unless you want to be in litigation for years with no guaranteed results, you want to strike a deal,” said Jeff Thaler, a University of Maine School of Law professor who has represented dam owners and environmentalists. “Otherwise, you could end up winning or losing everything.”

The Nature Conservancy approached the dam owner, Brookfield Renewable U.S., in 2019 with a proposal to sell the four dams — the Shawmut Dam in Fairfield, the Hydro Kennebec and Lockwood dams in Waterville and Winslow and the Weston Dam in Skowhegan — after they and state and federal agencies failed to reach agreement on how to improve fish passage. A Brookfield spokesperson declined to name the conservancy citing confidentiality, but the state provided emails to the Bangor Daily News with the group’s name after a public records request.

Mills policy advisor Tom Abello, who took that job after 19 years at the conservancy, contacted Brookfield that October to see if a solution could be reached. He said the Democratic governor had been briefed on the conversations around fish passage and the group’s interest in buying.

“[Mills] hopes that Brookfield will have an interest in discussing with her a comprehensive solution, including your role in future energy enhancements,” Abello wrote.

Brookfield was not opposed to discussing a sale, according to a February 2020 email from managing partner Mitch Davidson to Mills. But as the federal relicensing process for the Shawmut dam rolled along, the governor tried to influence the process by leveraging sales talks.

She told Brookfield last spring she would support the company’s request to the federal government for an extended relicensing deadline if the company agreed to delay building a fish passage system and expedited negotiations on selling the dams. Davidson resisted, saying in early May 2020 the state and conservancy were only interested in the delay to pursue sale negotiations and Brookfield was not “currently looking to dispose of any of its Maine facilities.”

The discussions appeared dead by October. Davidson said then the conservancy presented Brookfield with a “substantially” lower valuation than it would accept. Kessel and the Conservancy declined to say how much they believe the dams are worth.

Efforts to buy the dam may not have finished. Jeremy Cluchey, a spokesperson for the conservancy, noted such efforts can often take years. Spokespeople for Mills did not respond to a request for comment and marine resources department spokesperson Jeff Nichols said his agency was not directly involved in sale talks. Despite the sale’s failure, Cluchey said a solution can be found and his group is prepared to “build the partnerships, leverage the expertise, and marshal the resources to make something big happen on the Kennebec.”

Friction around dams has often revolved around the relicensing process because FERC must balance the electricity dams produce against any environmental effects they have on the river. Thaler noted three of the biggest dam removals in Maine’s history — in Veazie as well as at the Great Works Dam on the Penobscot River and the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec — took years and happened under vastly different circumstances.

The removal of the two Penobscot River dams was brokered after the owner agreed to sell them and an additional dam — which was decommissioned and bypassed — to a collective including the Penobscot Nation and environmental groups in 2004. The Edwards Dam’s removal was more contentious. FERC ordered the Augusta dam torn down in 1997 against the will of the city and its owner in a historic ruling. Maine eventually took it over and removed it in 1999.

Thaler noted the FERC ruling on the Shawmut Dam’s fish passage could give Brookfield less incentive to bargain with opponents. A successful challenge to a federal agency is rare, although opponents are likely to appeal the decision.

With dozens of dams across the state, these fights are unlikely to go away, Thaler said. He pointed to discussions in Yarmouth around removing two Royal River dams. The argument is familiar. The dams block fish passage, but landowners are concerned about lost property values and the risk of sediment being released.

“They’re all key issues here in Maine,” Thaler said.

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