ELLSWORTH — Nearly six years after Black Bear Hydro began the process to extend its license to maintain and operate electrical generation facilities at the Union River dam, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last week issued a preliminary decision on the matter.
The commission stated that “licensing the Ellsworth Project as proposed by Black Bear Hydro, with the additional staff-recommended measures, would be best adapted to a plan for improving the Union River Basin.”
The decision was announced in FERC’s Draft Environmental Assessment dated Nov. 21, a few days short of three years after Black Bear filed its formal license application.
Running some 439 pages including index, tables and footnotes, the takeaway appears to be that Black Bear will get a new license but that it will have to alter its operations to better protect the river’s fisheries and reduce the impact of fluctuating water levels on Graham Lake.
Currently, Black Bear 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.
The extreme fluctuation in water levels has had a significant impact on Graham Lake shorefront property owners, who often find boats and floats aground in a sea of mudflats when the water level is low. Low water also renders several boat launch areas on the lake unusable.
FERC is recommending that Black Bear be required to maintain water levels in the lake at between 98.5 and 103.0 feet — a range if just 4.5 feet — “in order to minimize project effects on turbidity and sedimentation, littoral habitat, recreation and aesthetics in and around Graham Lake.”
Those benefits, the commission staff found, would be “worth the levelized annual cost of $12,290 resulting from lost generation.”
Though substantial, the adjustment doesn’t satisfy everyone.
In an email this week, Dwayne Shaw, executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, said that, beginning in 2019, the water levels at Graham Lake should be stabilized with a fluctuation of no more than 4 feet.
Shaw also raised several concerns about the way FERC addressed important fish conservation issues.
The Union River watershed is important habitat for several aquatic species and the river itself is a highway for eels and alewives that migrate annually between the ocean and fresh water.
The river was also once home to an indigenous population of the endangered Atlantic salmon and a federal agency currently stocks the river with tiny salmon fry (juvenile fish.)
Over the past several years, large numbers of adult eels and alewives have been maimed and killed while migrating from downriver toward the sea. Some of those deaths have been the result of animals passing through the generating turbines.
Both conservation groups and the Department of Marine Resources have called for improved fish passage measures at the Ellsworth dam.
FERC has recommended several fish passage improvements, and it appears that implementing them would be a condition of any license, but it also rejected others, such as new trash racks at spillways at the top of the dam, suggested by DMR and others. FERC also required that Black Bear maintain certain levels of water flow, with the highest rate between May 1 and June 30 each year to assist fish in their downstream passage through the river.
According to the salmon federation’s Shaw, five “key elements,” including stabilization of the water levels on Graham Lake, need to be addressed to make the license acceptable:
- Provision for “state-of-the-art” fish passage must be completed within three years of the license being issued.
- Implementation of stocking programs for both Atlantic salmon and American shad beginning next year.
- Reduction of fish kills in the dam’s turbines to zero.
- Upgrades of the hydrostation’s “antiquated turbines to maximize power production.”
Shaw said he was cautiously optimistic that some, though not all, of those issues would be addressed, but that it was unlikely improvements would occur as rapidly as might be hoped.
He did offer some hope, though, that some of the issues ignored by FERC might be addressed in another forum.
In addition to the license from FERC, Black Bear must also get a state water quality license from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
“The MEDEP process … is another parallel and important piece of all of this,” Shaw said. With a new government in Augusta, he added, “that is likely to be a legitimate and more science based process” that “will act together in the licensure.”
As the licensing process winds its way forward, FERC has asked for comments on its draft Environmental Assessment from DMR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, among others.