By Seth Harkness, staff writer
The company that owns nine dams on the Saco River has tentatively agreed to install four new fish passages within the next 20 years on the only dams on the river lacking these facilities.
FPL Energy, which owns two dozen dams in Maine, also plans to build separate passages for eels on all of its dams on the Saco River.
The plans are contained in the final draft of a fisheries agreement that Florida-based FPL Energy and state and federal agencies have been negotiating for the past two years. The parties have not reached a final agreement yet or made the results of their negotiations public, but people involved in the talks say they expect to sign a deal within a month.
Negotiations on the fisheries agreement arose as part of the federal re-licensing process for the energy company’s dam at Bar Mills, which is the first dam that fish migrating up the Saco River cannot pass. The dams downstream of Bar Mills, on the Dayton-Buxton line and in the vicinity of Saco Island, contain fish passages installed as part of a 1994 agreement.
Because the licensing period for a dam can last as long as 50 years, the agreement with FPL Energy is likely to establish for decades how far fish can travel as they migrate up the Saco River from the sea, said Mark Woodruff of the Saco River Salmon Club.
“It sets the groundwork for many years to come,” he said.
Woodruff, who is taking part in the negotiations, said he couldn’t discuss the specifics of the talks.
As a representative of a local salmon club with 200 members, he said his main interest in the negotiations has been to ensure safe passage for these fish along the river.
Unlike salmon, which have been stable in numbers, populations of shad and alewives are on the rise, he said. Officials representing the state Department of Marine Resources in the negotiations pushed for the power company to open up more spawning grounds for these species, Woodruff said. The proposed fish passages would open about 25 miles of river between Bar Mills and Hiram.
Reconfiguring a dam to create a fish passage can be expensive. Al Wiley, an FPL Energy spokesman who works in Augusta, said the company spent $10 million a decade ago to build the ladders and elevators that allow fish to pass the four dams near Saco Island. Another fish lift on the company’s Skelton Project dam on the Buxton-Dayton line cost $6 million, he said.
Wiley said he couldn’t comment on the most recent negotiations or what the proposed projects would cost.
The draft agreement calls for finishing the first fish passage at Bar Mills by 2016. Progressing upstream, the company would build three other passages at three-year intervals, with the one at Hiram completed by 2025.
The agreement also sets forth a schedule for creating upstream and downstream passages for American eels at all FPL Energy dams on the Saco River. The work would begin with the dams closest to the mouth of the Saco River in 2008 and finish in Hiram in 2032. An eel passage is less difficult to build than a fish passage, according to Wiley, because eels can wriggle over solid surfaces. Typically, he said, an eel passage consists of a trough lined with artificial turf.
“They can basically find their own way and crawl right up,” he said.
The number of eels has declined in recent years, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are considering whether they merit protection under the Endangered Species Act. American eels begin their lives in the mid-Atlantic, migrate to freshwater rivers and lakes for most of their lives, and return to the saltwater to breed and die.