ELLSWORTH — The audience was smaller but the message no less forceful on Tuesday evening when officials from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) met with residents asking for better fish passage, decreased turbidity and less fluctuation in water levels in Graham Lake.
The meeting at Ellsworth High School was held at the request of Downeast Salmon Federation and the Conservation Law Foundation, which filed a joint request with the DEP for a public hearing on the application for relicensing the Ellsworth Hydropower Project, which includes the dams that form Leonard and Graham lakes.
“You have the ability to fix this permanently for the benefit of the citizens,” said Dwayne Shaw, executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation.
“Who would believe that a lake could be treated like a bathtub? They pulled the plug to generate power,” said Diane Perry, a Mariaville resident, adding that her family would not have bought their property on Graham Lake if they’d known about the drastic fluctuations in lake levels.
Under its current license, Black Bear Hydro LLC is allowed to raise and lower the level of Graham Lake between 93.4 and 104.2 feet above sea level — a range of 10.8 feet — to maintain enough water to drive its electrical generating turbines at the Union River dam.
Toronto-based conglomerate Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners, which owns Black Bear, acquired the dam in 2013 as part of a portfolio that included several assets.
The company owns 47 hydroelectric facilities in Maine and New Hampshire and started the licensing renewal process for the Ellsworth Hydropower Project nearly six years ago, formally filing the application in 2015.
The federal license for the dams was last renewed in 1987 and Black Bear is seeking to renew it for 40 years, until 2057.
The process has been contentious, with many residents arguing that the company has drawn the lake down to levels unseen under previous owner Bangor Hydro-Electric Co., resulting in the death of fish and wildlife as well as limiting recreational opportunities and threatening property values.
The Union River dam has generated an average of 27,600 megawatts of electricity annually since 2014, said Brookfield spokeswoman Samantha Edwards.
Edwards said in an email last winter that generation and lake levels have been lower in recent years in part due to drought.
Residents weren’t buying that argument on Tuesday night.
“Brookfield has no climate resilience plan. So when they ran into this drought, they were like ‘Hell, we need to make money, we’re just going to drain this thing,’” said resident Todd Little-Siebold, who asked the DEP to inquire about Brookfield’s climate resilience plan.
Graham Lake is relatively shallow. Charts show a depth of around 15-20 feet in places, with a few spots in the 40-foot range. Several residents told DEP officials on Tuesday that when the lake has been low, mud flats stretched for up to 100 feet and that the past two years have been the worst they’ve seen.
“Since Brookfield took over the drawdowns on that lake definitely started considerably earlier and they were definitely more aggressive,” said property owner Joe Minutolo.
In its initial license application, the company asked to keep its drawdown range of nearly 11 feet, but it revised that figure this spring, proposing 5.8 feet. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which issues the license, is recommending that Black Bear be required to maintain water levels in the lake at between 98.5 and 103.0 feet — a range of just 4.5 feet — “in order to minimize project effects on turbidity and sedimentation, littoral habitat, recreation and aesthetics in and around Graham Lake,” according to a letter from the commission.
An attorney representing the Downeast Salmon Federation said on Tuesday that the group would like to see a fluctuation of no more than 3 feet, but that the organization supports FERC’s 4.5-foot recommendation.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection does not recommend water levels, but it does evaluate proposals to see if they meet Maine’s water quality standards.
“Your mandate says that the operations may not adversely impact aquatic life,” said Little-Siebold. “Everything is being affected by the high levels of sediment that are passing down this river … there is a biological impact and it’s impressive, it’s substantial.”
Fish are still turning up dead at the Union River dam, said Brett Ciccotelli, a fisheries biologist with Downeast Salmon Federation.
“I watched dead river herring go by, today, so they’re still probably being killed … There was no truck there, no humans around, obviously no shutdown [of the turbines],” Ciccotelli said.
Although licenses are issued by FERC, Brookfield is required to get a state water quality license from the Maine DEP as part of the process.
The department is due to issue a decision by March next year. Officials did not comment on the license on Tuesday or take questions.