ELLSWORTH — It’s all a matter of perspective.
Last November, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a 400-plus-page draft environmental assessment for the application by Black Bear Hydro Partners LLC to renew its license to operate a hydroelectric project with two dams on the Union River.
One is in downtown Ellsworth and impounds Leonard Lake while the other one upstream impounds Graham Lake.
The assessment contained a number of recommended conditions to be imposed on the license, among them reducing the fluctuation of water levels in Graham Lake and requirements for Black Bear, owned by the Canadian holding company Brookfield Renewable, to provide — within a period of 15 years — efficient up- and downstream fish passages at the Leonard Lake dam.
FERC set a Jan. 21 deadline for comments on the assessment, and the comments poured in — from the Department of Marine Resources, the Downeast Salmon Federation and perhaps a dozen or so members of the general public.
Black Bear (and Brookfield) also filed a response with the federal agency. Its position could hardly be more at odds with the position of the salmon conservation group and most individuals filing comments.
“Yeah. They do diverge,” Downeast Salmon Federation fisheries biologist Brett Ciccotelli said in an email Tuesday morning.
In a letter to FERC dated Jan. 21, company licensing specialist Frank H. Dunlap wrote “Black Bear appreciates the opportunity to comment,” on the FERC draft, but has “significant concerns with the conclusions and recommendations of the DEA [draft environmental assessment] and believes that the Environmental Analysis must be revised…”
Black Bear’s number one critique of the assessment was its requirement that the company reduce fluctuations of the water levels in Graham Lake from the currently permitted 10.8 feet to no more than 4.5 feet. The company draws down lake water to run its hydroelectric turbines.
Graham Lake property owners, concerned with erosion and the frequent appearance of vast mudflats in front of their homes, have expressed support for the restriction.
The Downeast Salmon Federation, focusing on maintaining Graham Lake as a “natural water body” and healthy habitat for fish and shellfish such as freshwater mussels, described the mudflats that emerge primarily along the western side of the lake as “ecological deserts” and advocates for reducing the range of water levels to no more than 4 feet. The reduction would cost Black Bear just more than $12,000 annually in lost electric power generation capacity, according to FERC.
Black Bear argues that the assessment wrongly concluded that reducing the range of water elevation in Graham Lake would “minimize … effects on turbidity and sedimentation, littoral habitat, recreation and aesthetics” and failed to consider the impacts of such a reduction on “shoreline owners or on wetland and waterfowl habitats.”
According to Black Bear, there was little evidence to support FERC’s conclusions that the rise and often rapid fall of water levels in the lake had a significant impact on shoreline erosion or increased the quantity of suspended solids (soil) in the lake reducing the clarity of the water.
Besides disputing FERC’s conclusions about erosion and water clarity, Black Bear contends that reducing the rise and fall of the lake will have an adverse effect on wetlands that provide valuable habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds.
How fish such as alewives, eels, shad and even salmon get over the big Leonard Lake dam is another issue of contention.
In the assessment, FERC recommended that Black Bear build more effective up- and downstream fish passages at the dam within 15 years, but the salmon conservation groups and many individual commentators think that is far too long.
Five years, they argue, should be more than enough. FERC also called for more intensive monitoring and better protection for eels and alewives migrating downstream to reduce the significant kills like those that have occurred as fish are drawn through the generating turbines or over the dam to the rocks below. Those measures could include shutting the turbines down.
Black Bear rejected the FERC monitoring proposals as unnecessary and too expensive and suggested several modifications that would give it more flexibility in responding to fish passage issues.
Apparently, arguments over fishways at dams along the Union River long antedate the 1907 construction of the Leonard Lake dam.
An article from the April 20, 1898 edition of the Bar Harbor Record reports that “(t)he Ellsworth board of trade has again taken up the matter of placing fishways in the Union River, and means to push it to a successful issue.” At the time, the principal issue was providing upstream access for Atlantic salmon stocked by the federal fish hatchery at Green Lake to return to the river to spawn.
Although the deadline for filing comments with FERC has passed, and there is no hard deadline for the agency to act on Black Bear’s license application, the public still gets at least one more bite at the apple. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is considering whether to grant a Clean Waters Act permit for the dam project. The deadline for filing public comments in those proceedings is April 7.