For the past five years, this editorial page has hosted a debate over the future of the Fort Halifax dam. The dam’s owner, FPL Energy, proposed removal in 2002. In filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), FPL reported that even without fish passage costs, the dam lost money. Faced with this economic reality, FPL applied for permits to remove the dam.
Save Our Sebasticook (SOS), a group of riverfront homeowners, objected. When both the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued rulings approving dam removal, SOS mounted a classic NIMBY campaign of appeals and lawsuits in the state and federal court system — a campaign that so far has failed at every level.
SOS’s argument — repeated on this page by Rep. Ken Fletcher on Wednesday — is simple. They claim that that there will be no harm if permanent fish passage at Fort Halifax is further delayed; and that the loss of hydropower production from Fort Halifax will have unacceptable impacts on greenhouse gas emissions. Each of these claims is baseless.
State and federal fisheries agencies have been working to restore sea-run fish to the Kennebec River since the 1980’s. Their efforts created one of the most impressive conservation success stories in the nation.
Alewives, shad, blueback herring, Atlantic salmon, striped bass, Atlantic sturgeon and endangered shortnose sturgeon have all returned to the river, and each spring hundreds of thousands of fish sit at the base of the Fort Halifax dam waiting to move upstream. This summer, anglers are landing 10 or more shad per day within a quarter mile of Fort Halifax. Alewives are so abundant in May that kids catch them by hand.
The restoration program is proceeding as planned, with one exception. Permanent fish passage at the Fort Halifax dam is five years past due, as a direct result of SOS’s efforts to delay dam removal. SOS and Essex Hydro now seek an additional three year delay, arguing that there will be no harm to the restoration effort because the fish pump, first installed as an “interim measure” in 1999, will still be in place.
Rep. Fletcher asserts that the fish pump is adequate because it moved over 450,000 alewives this year. He neglects to mention that the pump broke in 2006, forcing the Maine Department of Marine Resources to resort to nets and buckets to stock upstream habitat. Last year commercial harvesters in Winslow captured 10 times as many alewives as the pump moved upstream. And even in years when it works, the pump hasn’t moved a single shad or salmon — because it can’t.
Rep. Fletcher’s arguments about the value of Fort Halifax’s energy production are similarly flawed. Certainly, Maine should be concerned about greenhouse gasses and carefully consider any actions that increase emissions. Maine should be proud of its role as a leader in production of non-fossil fuel electricity generation from hydropower, wood biomass, and wind. But Fort Halifax dam produces so little energy that its contribution to this is a drop in a bucket. The Fort Halifax dam produces 4/100 of 1% of electricity produced in Maine. It produces 17/100 of 1% of Maine’s hydropower, and 8/100 of 1% of Maine’s renewable power. Compare Fort Halifax to the recently completed Mars Hill wind project. Each of Mars Hill’s 28 turbines matches the generating capacity of Fort Halifax. In its first 3 months of operation, Mars Hill generated nearly four times what Fort Halifax puts out in an average year.
SOS has argued that the 1998 KHDG Agreement sacrificed hydropower for fisheries restoration. But that agreement, and other agreements negotiated in the 1990’s, maintained more than 97% of hydropower production on the Kennebec River.
The 1998 KHDG Agreement struck a fundamental balance between hydropower production, fisheries restoration and carefully planned fish passage. Edwards Dam was removed to restore the lower Kennebec. Upstream dam owners were able to delay fish passage construction by 4 to 20 years. And fisheries managers got a predictable schedule for fishway construction at upstream dams. The delays in fish passage at Fort Halifax have already upset that balance. They cannot be allowed to continue. It’s time to fulfill the promise the dam’s owner made in 1998, remove the dam and get on with restoring the Sebasticook.