by Susan Sharon
MPBN Radio news story
Environmental groups working to restore fish passage on the lower Androscoggin River say a recent finding by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection could have far-reaching implications for the rest of the state of Maine. For the first time, the DEP has said that a river’s water quality has been impaired by the long-term failure of fish passage at the Brunswick Dam and groups are hoping that will force the dam owner to make improvements.
What has members of the Androscoggin River Alliance encouraged is a short paragraph in a recent draft biennial report on water quality from the Maine DEP. In it, the department finds that the lower Androscoggin is impaired by a non-pollutant, specifically, the Brunswick Dam, because it fails to support American shad.
“This is the first time in Maine’s history that the lack of a species, a native species has triggered a non-attainment listing for any sort of a water body,” said Neil Ward.
He is the executive director of the Androscoggin River Alliance which petitioned the DEP last winter to find the river in non-attainment with its Class C water quality classification.
“On virtually every river in the state of Maine there are fish passage issues so this really will open up a door for many other organizations and groups trying to restore their native fish populations in their rivers,” said Ward.
The Brunswick Dam is licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. One of the provisions of its license is a requirement for fish passage for American shad, which once numbered in the hundreds of thousands of fish until the dam was constructed at the head of tide in Brunswick in the early 1800s. A fish ladder to propel fish over the barrier has been a 25-year failure according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Ward is hopeful that the DEP’s finding will force the dam owner, Nextera Energy to rectify the situation. But Andy Fisk of the DEP says there is no connection between his agency’s report and the FERC license.
“People agree that we have to figure out a better solution there and this report does not change the legal landscape, per se,” said Fisk. “It notes that this issue occurs at that location and reinforces our existing position that that fish passage facility needs to perform better.”
How that happens, Fisk says, will come down to the dam owner, the state and river advocates. For its part, NextEra spokesman Steve Stengel says fish passage at the dam has worked well for Atlantic salmon and river herring but he acknowledges it hasn’t worked well for shad. It’s just not clear why.
“It could be the design of the fish passage,” said Stengel. “It could be because of other predator fish in the same area. But no one really knows for sure.”
Stengel says the company will continue to work with the resource agencies to try to come up with a solution that balances environmental needs with the need for clean power. Environmental attorney Steve Hinchman says the DEP’s formal finding is critical to any effort to open NextEra’s FERC license and to get the dam operator to fix the problem. Hinchman is working with the Androscoggin River Alliance.
“The shad are a key link in the food chain that goes all the way to cod and haddock and if we ever want to restore the Gulf of Maine we’ve got to restore these forage species,” Hinchman said. “And we can’t let these privately owned dams continue to essentially rob the public purse of an incredibly important and valuable public asset.”
Stengel points out that Nextera recently took out a dam in Winslow, in part, to enhance fish passage.