An early August photo shows the drastic drop in water level at Graham Lake. Residents point to Brookfield Renewable’s operation of two Ellsworth dams while the company lays the blame on drought conditions. WILLIAM J. BARNA PHOTO

Shrinking lake angers residents

ELLSWORTH — When Ed Damm wants to sail on Graham Lake, he first has to walk the plank — literally.

Low water levels exposing a hardened lake bed are nearly as bad this summer as in 2017, which was “the worst year for us in the past 20 years,” Damm said. “From October to November of that year, I could ride my bicycle across the dried, cracked mud out to island number 3 and barely leave a tire impression in the surface.”

Several lakefront homeowners filed complaints with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on Aug. 17 and 18, concerned that Brookfield Renewable, which operates dams on Graham Lake and the Union River as Black Bear Hydro Partners LLC, violated its license requirements for minimum flow requirements and water levels for each dam. Brookfield said it had not — and submitted to FERC the data to prove it. Instead, the company pointed to drought conditions as the cause for the drop in water level.

“As the data provided to FERC indicates, Black Bear Hydro Partners responsibly managed the Ellsworth Project and the Graham Lake reservoir throughout 2022,” David Heidrich, manager, stakeholder relations – Northeast, stated to The American. “Despite minimizing our electrical generation while ensuring adequate downstream flow to support fish passage, aquatic wildlife and licensed minimum flows, drought conditions, which plagued Hancock County for much of the year, were primarily responsible for the low water levels at Graham Lake.”

Data on both minimum flow and water levels from May 1 to Aug. 31 shows that both dams stayed within their license requirements except for one day in June following planned repairs at the Ellsworth Dam. The minimum flow requirement is meant to protect safe fish passage, mainly of alewives and eels.

Brookfield acknowledged that “the total river flow” exceeded the project’s minimum flow requirements during downstream migratory periods, because since 2016 it has used slower turbine units that require “substantially more flow” at the Ellsworth station to “provide higher survival for these species.”

“Combined, these minimum outflows have often exceeded inflows to the Project during the recent summer and fall drought conditions in the Project area, thus causing Graham Lake water levels to drop lower than normal,” Senior Compliance Specialist Kevin Bernier wrote in Brookfield’s Sept. 6 response to FERC.

But many Graham Lake residents who wake up to a hardened lake bed instead of sparkling blue water still hold Brookfield’s operation of the dams responsible and are urging citizens to sign a petition. As of Sept. 14, the Save Graham Lake, Maine petition had 100 signatures and was forwarded to U.S. Rep. Jared Golden’s office in hopes of further action. Local residents post photos and the latest information from Brookfield on the Graham Lake & Upper Union River Community Facebook page, where an array of photos show what lakefront living is like on Graham Lake.

“They blame this on the drought, but they continue to draw down the lake well above the minimum flow level which is 105 cubic feet per second (cfs),” homeowner Donald Gully said. “They even state on their site that the projected flow rate for the week should be 150 [cfs]. I just checked now and the flow rate is four times what they say is scheduled — 605 cfs.”

Residents’ concerns for Graham Lake are over wildlife, recreational use and their property tax rate, with Gully noting that “homeowners are getting charged a higher tax rate due to their houses being lakefront, but the lakefront is basically unusable for a lot of people. They can’t even get their boats in the water. Even at designated boat launches.”

Terry Carlisle has lived on Graham Lake for 22 years and said she’s seen the water level lower than this summer but is not as quick as some residents to lay the blame solely on Brookfield, although she said she hadn’t reviewed the latest data.

“I would offer that the drought is what has caused the extreme drop of the water level,” she said, adding, “I believe that Brookfield should be held to a lesser drawdown, but they can’t be blamed for climate change and drought.”

The current issues over Brookfield’s operation of the Ellsworth Hydroelectric Project comes in the midst of the company’s appeal of Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s denial of a Water Quality Certification, which jeopardizes the renewal of Brookfield’s FERC license to operate. Brookfield is still waiting for a court date for the appeal and plans to continue to push to renew its license to operate, Heidrich said.

“Ellsworth’s relicensing has been challenged by several, often competing, interests from a diverse community of stakeholders, but Black Bear remains committed to pursuing all available options to ensure a new license is obtained.”

Anne Berleant

Anne Berleant

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Anne Berleant covers news and features in Ellsworth, Mariaville, Otis, Amherst, Aurora, Great Pond and Osborn. When not reporting, find her hiking local trails, reading or watching professional tennis. Email her at [email protected]
Anne Berleant

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