Richard Lawrence argues jobs and fish can be preserved on the Kennebec River.
In this Sept. 15, 2021, file photo, the Shawmut Dam spans the Kennebec River between Fairfield and Benton. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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Richard Lawrence of Benton is a former selectman. He has been the town’s alewife warden for 14 years.

Recently, while traveling home along the Sebasticook River, I was delighted to observe a scavenging of gulls swooping, diving and feasting in the shallows below the Benton Falls hydro dam. Several cars had parked. Families walked close to the river. They were witnessing the annual fall migration of many millions of young river herring — alewives — on their way toward the Gulf of Maine. Most of those small fish will be eaten by creatures in the rivers and estuaries to the ocean, from herons to whales over the next three or four years before the survivors, as adults, return to their birth waters.

At Benton Falls, in the month of May, typically 3 million will be lifted past the dam to spawn in Unity and Newport, as far upstream as Stetson. They will fill the river, glistening brown and silver in the sun from bank to bank, as they had done 200 years ago, before the dams. Harvesters, lobstermen and lobsterwomen, will net a sustainable share of the fish, mainly for bait.

In the Penobscot River, because of the goodwill and cooperation of many parties willing to negotiate, to compromise and seek a solution, the annual return of river herring may soon exceed the bounty of the Sebasticook Rivers (the largest tributary in the Kennebec watershed). Two hydro dams were removed, a third upgraded so no power generation was lost. I look forward to their river soon becoming the largest return of alewife on the east coast of North America. Next, perhaps, the St. Croix River.

And then the Kennebec? No, not alewives but perhaps salmon? I believe that with goodwill, persistence and ingenuity, anadromous fish can return to the upper Kennebec River while the Sappi mill continues successful operation.

I was discouraged reading Sen. Brad Farrin’s opinion column in the Oct. 6 paper, dismayed first by the headline: “Dam fight could doom Skowhegan paper mill,” then by the content.

He offers an accurate and well-written summary of the demise of Jay’s mill after nearly 60 years. Then Farrin shifts to the Kennebec with his alarming opinion that Gov. Janet Mills is pushing the Sappi mill to extinction. He concludes, several hundred words later, that she should call the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and accede to the wishes of Brookfield Whitepine Hydro LLC.

Farrin asserts that Sappi will give up because Maine will prioritize “three to five fish per year” over the livelihoods of thousands of Maine workers. He represents Brookfield as an injured party suffering from intransigent state government. In my opinion, Brookfield has submitted flawed and inadequate proposals that do not ensure fish passage above Waterville, plans that have been rejected by the Department of Environmental Protection.

For decades, with good intentions, Mainers have tried to recover the Kennebec River from centuries of industrial uses, so that wildlife as well as people can thrive. We need Sappi, and we need salmon. Engineers and scientists can solve this seeming dilemma. I am pleased to read that the Department of Environmental Protection is inviting Brookfield to submit an updated application.        

In the November election, Farrin may win another term in the Senate, in the new District 3 where he’ll represent me in Benton and several towns in the Sebasticook watershed. I wish him well, but hope he will look harder, at the example offered by the Penobscot solution, bring all parties together without bowing to the interests of an international conglomerate that I believe has obfuscated and misrepresented itself concerning the Kennebec dams. We needn’t bow to fear-mongering.