ELLSWORTH — The bitter cold of the new year was a reminder of the glacial pace of relicensing proceedings before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the Leonard Lake and Graham Lake dams on the Union River.
In October 2012, Black Bear Hydro Partners LLC, owner of the Ellsworth hydropower dam that forms Leonard Lake on the Union River, filed a notice of intent and pre-application document with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for a renewal of its license to continue the dam’s hydroelectric generating operations. The formal application was filed April 30, 2015.
The current dam license, granted in 1987, became effective on Jan. 1, 1988, and expired Dec. 31, 2017.
In April 2013, the company filed plans for proposed studies of the dam’s environmental impacts. The proposal has been modified several time over the past four-and-a-half years — and a variety of studies completed — to address concerns expressed by state regulatory agencies such as the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife; federal agencies including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Bureau of Indian Affairs; and conservation groups, such as the Downeast Salmon Federation.
The relicensing process also has drawn the interest of owners of shoreland on the two lakes above the dam. They say that fluctuating water levels, especially in Graham Lake, caused by the periodic release of water to power the dam’s hydroelectric generators, have a serious impact on their property.
While the relicensing proceedings drag on (FERC rules allow the dam to remain in place and continue to generate hydropower during the process), more environmental studies are under way.
Just before the new year, Brookfield Renewable, Black Bear’s current owner, filed the final version of a report on the second year of study of the impact on downstream passage of Atlantic salmon smolt through the dam.
With a report running nearly 100 pages, the study by the environmental consulting firm Normandeau Associates, of Portsmouth, N.H., tracked the injuries and survival of both radio-tagged and acoustically-tagged juvenile fish released above the dam last June. Unsurprisingly, the survival rate was substantially higher for fish that passed over the dam through a spillway than those that passed through either of the dam’s two turbines.
Last week, the Downeast Salmon Federation filed a petition signed by some 471 individuals with FERC. The petition primarily expresses their concerns that FERC require, as part of any new license, that Brookfield make provisions that would allow “highly successful upstream and downstream fish passage for native species” at the Ellsworth and Graham Lake dams and that water levels in Graham Lake be stabilized.
FERC has not announced any date for issuing a licensing decision.