Saturday, March 16, 2013

Saccarappa Dam to Be Removed?

Dam at Lower Saccarappa Falls, Presumpscot River, Westbrook, Maine, c. 1900.
 Note the woven piles of sticks and brush in the foreground. It looks like a fish weir.

In the first week of March 2013 the SAPPI corporation in Westbrook announced with the City of Westbrook a plan to 'explore' removing the Saccarappa Dam in downtown Westbrook on the Presumpscot River. Under their federal license SAPPI must have fishways built and in operation at the dam by 2015. Apparently SAPPI is having second thoughts about making this multi-million dollar investment at a dam which generates very little hydroelectric power. 

But it's important to remember how things got to where they are now, how they almost didn't and the crucial role played by Friends of Sebago Lake. In July 2007, the State and SAPPI and Friends of the Presumpscot River announced a secretly negotiated settlement agreement where SAPPI would remove the Cumberland Mills dam underneath the S.D. Warren mill by 2011 instead of building fishways on it. This agreement was called the Presumpscot River Settlement Framework, or PRSF for short. 

In exchange for removing Cumberland Mills dam, the PRSF would have allowed most of the fishway requirements at SAPPI's four upstream dams to be delayed for decades, and at the Dundee Dam, to be erased. No fishway would be required at Saccarappa until 2016. No fishway would be required at Mallison Falls until 2026 at the earlest, at Little Falls until 2031 and at Gambo until 2036. Because of FOSL's publicity and legal actions, the PSRF ran out of steam in 2008. In 2009 the State issued an order under the state's fishway law which required SAPPI to build fishways at the Cumberland Mills Dam by 2012. The fishways were completed this past summer, on schedule. This spring will mark the first time in 130 years that children in downtown Westbrook will be able to see sea-run fish swim up the Presumpscot River to downtown Westbrook and to Saccarappa Falls. 

This spring will be a historic and momentous occasion in Westbrook and this opportunity was very nearly lost in 2008 except for FOSL's aggressive public and legal defense. Small groups of people, when well informed and active, can make a difference. But what happens next is very unclear. 

SAPPI's federal dam license requires them to build fish passage at Saccarappa within two years of fish passage being available at Cumberland Mills dam, which was completed this past summer. This means SAPPI must have Saccarappa passable to fish by May 1, 2015. This is why SAPPI and the City of Westbrook announced on March 6 they wish to study removing the dam rather than keeping it and installing fishways. To begin this process, according to newspaper reports, the City is applying for a $733,000 federal grant to study removing the Saccarappa Dam. This seems like an awful lot of money to study removing the dam and it is quite sketchy whether Westbrook will even be awarded the grant. 

Already, attorney Sean Mahoney of the Conservation Law Foundation, who was a key river advocate in the state fishway proceeding at Cumberland Mills, has expressed concern that without more details, the City of Westbrook's proposal to study removing the Saccarappa dam could be used as a backdoor to delay building fish passage at Saccarappa for years. "My real concern is that this announcement ... looks to be preparing the ground for additional delay," Mahoney said to the Portland Press-Herald on the day of the City and SAPPI's announcement. 

Obviously, removal of the Saccarappa Dam would be the best option for the Presumpscot River's sea-run fish and expanded public use of the Presumpscot River. No fishway, no matter how well intended or well designed is close to 100 percent effective. The quirky, 200-year-old shape of the Saccarappa Dam makes successful mechanical fish passage distinctly challenging. Most likely two separate fishways would be needed, one in the dam's power canal and the other at the falls themselves. 

FERC records show that SAPPI has yet to submit any design plans for fishways at Saccarappa. By the dam's federal license requirements, fishway needs to completed by next summer (2014) in order to meet the legal deadline of actually passing fish at the dam by May 1, 2015. So from a pure pouring-of-concrete perspective, the window of opportunity for meeting this 2015 legal deadline is closing fast. So far, SAPPI has yet to produce any substantive design plans for fishways or removing the dam. The design plans for either option, in fairly complete form, need to be submitted this spring if SAPPI has any realistic hope of complying with the legal requirement for having Saccarappa passable to fish by May 1, 2015. This is the exact concern raised by Sean Mahoney of CLF in the Portland Press-Herald: that this 'trial balloon' about dam removal should not be allowed to devolve into a backdoor way for SAPPI to avoid complying with the letter of their state and federal license requirements for many years after the legal deadlines have passed.

So while the concept of removing Saccarappa looks great on paper, right now there is precious little actual paper to judge it. All that exists is a brief public announcement on March 6 by SAPPI and the City of Westbrook as reported in the local newspapers. For legal deadlines to have meaning, they must be taken seriously. The only knowns in this equation is that SAPPI's federal and state licenses require the dam to be passable to fish by May 1, 2015,  the dam is not currently passable and SAPPI has no plan on the table to make it passable by May 1, 2015.

This is why the City of Westbrook and SAPPI's stated interest in seeking a $733,000 federal grant to study the concept of dam removal is a bit disconcerting at this late date. Not that a study is a bad idea -- it's more a matter of the time necessary to do a study (also the $733,000 must be a typo -- that amount is well in the range of the cost of removing the dam). The addition of a lengthy study would seem to make it very hard for SAPPI to meet their legal deadline for making the Saccarappa Dam passable to fish by May 1, 2015. So this March 6th announcement kind of sort of sounds like a tacit admission that SAPPI is going to miss their May 1, 2015 legal deadline by a wide margin.

So as you can see, the SAPPI/City of Westbrook announcement of March 6th, 2013 raises more questions than it answers. 

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