By Diana Bowley
DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — The Department of Environmental Protection on Thursday granted one of three permits requested by the Penobscot River Restoration Trust in its effort to restore native sea-run fish, including Atlantic salmon, to the Penobscot River watershed.
The trust was given the go-head Thursday to decommission the Veazie Dam in Veazie and Eddington, Dana Murch, the DEP’s dams and hydropower supervisor, confirmed Thursday. A decision on permits requested for two companion projects — the decommissioning of the Great Works Dam in Old Town and Bradley, and the construction of a fish bypass channel at the existing Howland Dam — is expected to be made within a week, he said.
The department’s decisions on the matter may be appealed to the Board of Environmental Protection or to the Maine Superior Court, according to Murch.
“Veazie is the first dam that sea-run fish hit when they attempt to migrate from their journey through the ocean upriver to important spawning and rearing habitat,” Laura Rose Day, executive director of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust, said Thursday. “So we’re very pleased that we have final orders to remove [the] Veazie [dam] both now from the federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the state.”
The Army Corps of Engineers will need to OK the project, and local permits may be needed for the work. Once those have been obtained, it is expected that the trust, which is spearheading the project, will close on the dam properties owned by PPL Maine LLC and PPL Great Works LLC.
Murch said if all three projects are approved, it would mark the biggest change in the Penobscot River in 150 years. The Penobscot River Restoration Project, which has involved residents, agencies and state, federal and tribal officials, has been in the planning stages for several years and most recently public hearings were held on the plan. More than 100 comment letters were received by the DEP by the July 13 deadline, according to Murch. Of those letters, an “overwhelming majority” were in favor of the entire project, he noted.
“It’s a big deal and these were complicated projects — there are a great many issues,” Murch said of the project review.
One of the issues that raised concerns was the possibility that the project could open the waterways to the invasive and voracious northern pike, Murch said.
If the bypass channel is built and northern pike get up to the bypass, the fish would be able to swim through it and get into the lower Piscataquis River, according to Murch. It would appear unlikely, however, that the pike would move upriver on their own, he said. The question for some is whether the barriers that would be con-structed would be good enough to keep them out, he said.
That possibility worries the Piscataquis County commissioners, former Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife fisheries biologist Paul Johnson of Oakland, and the Fin and Feather Club of Maine, all of which expressed their concerns in letters to the DEP.
“Northern pike has the potential to significantly impact resident fisheries, primarily through predation,” Piscataquis County Manager Marilyn Tourtelotte said this week. That especially would be true if northern pike were to gain access to the upper reaches of the Piscataquis River and the West Branch Penobscot drainage, she said.
Tourtelotte’s comments were echoed by Johnson, whose views differ from those of his former employer. Johnson said this week that a DEP approval of the bypass channel would violate the state’s management plans and policies, in part because the trust has proposed nothing to mitigate the impact of northern pike in the Pis-cataquis River and in the entire Pleasant River watershed.
Johnson also said it would be “ludicrous for the state to continually bemoan illegal introductions of invasive species now occurring in the state while officially sanctioning the introduction of an invasive species to a watershed where they do not now occur and from which they can be excluded.” He asked in his comment letter that the DEP schedule a public hearing on the bypass project in the Dover-Foxcroft or Milo area.
As part of the plan for the project, Murch said a memorandum of understanding must be implemented by the Departments of Marine Resources and Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to create and maintain barriers for northern pike to keep them from getting into waters where they could have an adverse effect on freshwater fish.
The memorandum of understanding specifically addresses an existing barrier above Howland, Patrick Keliher, director of the DMR’s Bureau of Sea Run Fisheries and Habitat, said Thursday. The Howland barrier has existed for years and will remain in place until the bypass is built, he said.
Before the bypass is operational, Keliher said his agency would work with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to make sure that upriver barriers are in place so invasive species don’t spread above other points.
DMR’s Richard Dill, who has studied pike extensively and who is in charge of coordinating the barriers, said Thursday there are three dams on the upper Piscataquis River, one in Guilford and two in Dover-Foxcroft. Dill said a vertical jump or barrier would be installed in at least one of those fishways. All three fishways were examined this summer and he said it looks like Brown’s Mills, the first dam on the upper Piscataquis River, will be the ideal location for installation of a greater-than-30-inch vertical jump.
“Pike are not known to be jumpers, and the advice that we got from fishway engineers is that 30 inches should be adequate to prevent pike from moving up through that fishway,” Dill said.
He said he believes the state’s plan for the bypass project seriously takes into account the concerns of the project’s opponents.
Day of the Penobscot River Restoration Trust said no one wants northern pike, but she believes the state has done a good job of adequately addressing that issue through its Penobscot Plan and its risk assessment.