ELLSWORTH — On Dec. 30, 2015, Black Bear Hydro Partners applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a new license for the hydroelectric facilities it operates on the Union River — the dams forming Graham Lake and Leonard Lake. Now the relicensing process is moving toward conclusion.
The application was a significant step in a renewal process initiated even earlier as the company began a series of studies relating to the impact of the dams on the ecosystem of the Union River — habitat for several species of fish, birds, other wildlife and plants.
Over the past two-plus years, at the direction of the licensing agency, known as FERC, the company and conservation organizations including the Downeast Salmon Federation, among others, have studied how the dams interfere with the passage upstream and downstream of anadromous alewives and river herring, which return to the Union River from the sea to spawn, and catadromous American eels, which enter the river from the ocean as tiny elvers, then grow to adult American eels before returning to the sea to spawn.
Moving upstream, alewives have to be trapped and carried above the dams in tank trucks while elvers struggle up the rocks, largely at the eastern end of the Ellsworth dam.
Moving downstream, fish must deal with the hydroelectric turbines at the Ellsworth dam. Observers have documented a number of large fish kills below both dams. Below the Ellsworth dam, dead eels and alewives have shown evidence of injury consistent with passing through the turbine blades.
The relicensing process also has caused owners of property fronting on the two lakes to raise issues with the effects of wide fluctuations of water levels. The problem — shoreline erosion from high water levels and the exposure of extensive mudflats when water levels are lowered when additional waterflows are required to generate electricity at the Ellsworth dam, is particularly acute in Graham Lake. Under its current license, Black Bear (acquired by Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners in 2013) is allowed to let water levels fluctuate between 93.4 and 104.2 feet above sea level. The license also sets minimum water release flow rates below the dams, higher from May 1 to June 30, lower during the rest of the year.
Last Friday, FERC issued a notice to the public that Black Bear’s license application had been accepted for filing and setting a 60-day deadline for comments. Interested parties have until April 10 to file motions to intervene in the licensing proceedings as well as for “protests, comments, recommendations, terms and conditions and prescriptions.” An additional 45-day period is allowed for Black Bear, or others, to file replies.
According to FERC, Black Bear plans “to continue the current licensed mode of operation, including minimum flow releases.” The company also plans to install upstream eel passage facilities at both the Graham Lake and Ellsworth dams as well as build a canoe portage trail at Graham Lake.
FERC’s timetable calls for the commission to issue a required Draft Environmental Impact Statement in August, with comments due in October. The commission would issue its “Final Environmental Assessment” for the dams in March 2019.
Even though Black Bear’s license for the dams expired at the end of last year, the company is still allowed to continue its hydropower operations. Under FERC’s rules, the company’s license was renewed for one year while the commission considers the license renewal application. The license will renew automatically year to year until FERC takes final action on the company’s application for another 30-year license.