The end may finally be in sight for the long-running conflicts over the Fort Halifax Dam on the Sebasticook in Winslow.
The dam is an integral part of the state and federal government’s plan to restore native, migratory fish such as alewives, shad, sturgeon and atlantic salmon to the upper reaches of the Kennebec’s watershed, where they can reproduce in their ancestral spawning grounds.
After the precedent-setting 1999 removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta, which had blocked all migratory fish from traveling north on the Kennebec River, the Fort Halifax Dam and several others along the river and its tributaries were slated to get fish passage facilities installed to allow further upstream migration. That plan was spelled out in an agreement signed by the state, the feds and a group of conservation and angling interests who wanted to see the river restored to its previous status as one of the country’s premier homes for anadromous, or migratory, fish.
Instead of an orderly march of fish upstream, as was planned, an epic battle ensued. That’s because the Fort Halifax Dam’s owners, FPL Energy, decided that the energy generated by the dam wasn’t worth the cost to install fish passage. So they planned to breach the dam.
That wasn’t, in fact, what the conservation and angling group partners ever expected to happen, but if that was how fish were going to get upstream, so be it, they said. The residents who lived along the pond in Winslow created by the Fort Halifax Dam, however, took exception to the plan. If the dam was breached, they lost their waterfront property; instead of a spot for recreation, they claimed they’d be living on a muddy trickle of a stream.
Lawsuits, challenges, angry confrontations and more lawsuits ensued. At every juncture, the residents’s appeals lost, but still they persevered in fighting and delaying the dam breach. Local activist Ken Fletcher became a seasoned politico through the process and rode into the Legislature on the strength of his popularity among Winslow property owners.
And in the intervening years, a new factor entered the equation: The price of energy skyrocketed. While FPL Energy, part of a national energy conglomerate with huge interests in the U.S. and abroad, saw the dam as unprofitable, others didn’t.
This week, a Boston company that already owns the dam upstream at Benton Falls revealed that they have a “deal in principle” to buy the dam and install fish passage. The economics of the deal evidently make it worthwhile for Essex Hydro to buy the dam, operate its hydropower facilities and install fish passage.
That means, in essence, that everyone wins. Almost.
Winslow property owners along the impoundment keep their waterfront. An income-generating piece of property will remain on the town tax rolls. An energy source that doesn’t produce greenhouse gasses will remain in operation. But dams are by no means environmentally benign; this one has blocked fish passage along the once tremendously productive Kennebec River for almost 100 years. And prospective buyer Essex Hydro says it will be another two years before a fish lift will be moving fish over the Fort Halifax Dam. In the meantime, the pump used by state fisheries personnel to transport fish upstream at Fort Halifax is broken.
Fish passage was, by contract, supposed to have been in place at Fort Halifax in 2003. If it’s not installed for another two years, that makes six years of delay. Even dams upriver from Fort Halifax have installed passage in anticipation of the arrival of fish over the Winslow dam. Every year without passage takes its toll on the ability of those fish to reproduce. We hope that if the purchase of the dam proceeds, litigation finally ceases and that fish passage is installed with all due speed. Those Kennebec River fish have done a lot of waiting.