Things changed after the 1970s, when passage of the Clean Water Act resulted in the cleanup of pollution that flowed into the rivers. And over the last 20 years, a series of legally-binding agreements were entered into by state and federal regulators, citizens and owners of several dams along the Kennebec and Sebasticook Rivers to restore native fish populations to both the Kennebec and the Sebasticook. Those agreements, which were part of a massive federal, state, conservationist and angler-led effort to bring back the rivers’ decimated native fish populations, specified that if dam owners were to continue generating both power and income at their facilities, they would have to provide fish passage at dams that had historically blocked those fish from reaching their upstream spawning grounds.
But for several years now, there’s been one stubborn holdout of people resisting the tide of restoration that is making its way upriver — the members of Save Our Sebasticook, or SOS.
The group’s membership is drawn from residents along the 5.2 mile long lake-like section created in the SebasticookRiver by the Fort Halifax dam in Winslow. When the owners of that dam found that the cost of installing a fish ladder far outweighed any income they got off the dam, they applied for permission from the state and federal governments to breach the dam. They got permission from both — and howls of protest went up from SOS. Their waterfront property would be worthless without their lake-like impoundment, they said; bald eagles and other wildlife would die; toxic sediment would be exposed by the breaching; and anyway, they maintained, the agreements were made in secret and without proper public notice or input. Just about the only thing they didn’t say would happen was that the sky would fall, but it was only a matter of time.
The group has spent the past few years filing one legal and administrative appeal after another to stop the breaching of Fort Halifax. They’ve made appeals to state court. They’ve appealed to federal court. They’ve appealed to the state Board of Environmental Protection. And every single time, their appeals have been rejected.
Helped by one of the state’s most prominent law firms, the members of Save our Sebasticook have been unable to get legal traction anywhere. They’ve been told over and over again by any number of judges and agency reviewers that eagles won’t die, the agreements they’re challenging are legally defensible, toxic sediments are not a problem and indeed, it’s arguable whether their property values will plummet given the fact that they’ll be living on a lively, restored river post-breaching, rather than the fetid, algae-ridden, slow-moving river section it is now. The rulings have come down again and again, and the answer is always the same: SOS’s case has no merit.
Indeed, the owners of the dam, Florida Power and Light, have said that they’d be willing to turn the dam over to SOS or anyone else and even give them the money that would have gone into breaching it — but they haven’t had any takers. We wonder, if maintaining the dam is so important to SOS, then why don’t they take it over themselves? Because as FPL has found, it’s entirely uneconomical to keep it operating if fish passage has to be installed. Which is the reason, of course, that it will, ultimately, be breached.
That’s why we were dismayed to hear last week that, upon their latest appeal being rejected in state court, SOS intended to appeal that rejection to the state’s Supreme Court. What is it about “no” that they don’t understand? We’re sorry to see that more time will be spent not only by SOS’s volunteer lawyers, but by attorneys working for the public, on a quixotic quest that is clearly going to end in defeat for SOS — but a victory for the river. SOS certainly has the right to continue its roadblocking, but that doesn’t make it right to do so. The Kennebec and the Sebasticook are on their way back to restoration, and the members of SOS are standing in the way only temporarily of something that is unstoppable.