Drought and fluctuating water levels on Graham Lake in Ellsworth have exposed wide swaths of lakebed this summer. ED DAMM PHOTO

Graham Lake water levels plummet

ELLSWORTH — Nearly five years into the process of renewing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license for its Graham Lake and Leonard Lake dams, Black Bear Hydro seems no closer to solving the issue of fluctuating water levels in Graham Lake than when the process began.

Earlier this month, shoreland owners reported that the water level in Graham Lake had dropped to extremely low levels and that acres of mudflats are carpeted with dead and dying freshwater mussels.

“When will this drastic drop in water level stop?” Graham Lake shoreland owner Ed Damm asked recently.

“Brookfield Renewable (the parent of Black Bear Hydro) is allowed to change the Graham Lake water level by over 10 feet with extensions and appeals to their license,” Damm said. “This has to change.”

Lack of rain this summer greatly affected water levels, according to Brookfield Renewable spokeswoman Miranda Kessel.

“Due to the drought conditions, Black Bear Hydro has been challenged in its ability to maintain reservoir elevations at Graham Lake, while also balancing downstream requirements,” according to a company statement Tuesday.  “As part of this balancing act between reservoir levels and river flow, we consider multiple operational and environmental mitigation factors in managing the generating unit(s) to maintain river and downstream flows.”

Under the terms of an annual license issued by FERC in 2018, Black Bear is allowed to reduce the water level in Graham Lake by as much as 10.8 feet if it needs the water to power its hydroelectric turbine generators at the Leonard Lake dam.

Kessel said only one of the power-generating units has been operating “at or near minimum capability” since May, with the exception of a six-hour capability test required by ISO-New England regulations. “In mitigating risk to migratory fish, running a larger single generating unit is prioritized over other alternatives that include running a single smaller unit or not running any unit(s).” Those alternatives could result in water spilling over the dam at a depth not considered safe for fish passage, according to Kessel.

A year ago, FERC issued its Final Environmental Assessment required as a part of the licensing process for the project. Weighing in at some 580 pages, the assessment is likely not enough to completely satisfy all of the parties interested in limiting fluctuations of water levels in Graham Lake or concerned about other environmental and water quality issues.

Those parties include Black Bear, state and federal natural resource agencies, Graham Lake shoreland property owners and private conservation organizations with interest in up- and downstream fish passage.

A pile of freshwater mussels gathered from dry mudflats on Graham Lake.

Earlier this month, Damm reported on the “low water, hardened, dried out lake bottom” in Graham Lake. On one recent day, he said, he was able to pick up 150 freshwater mussels from the flats along his 450 feet of lakefront. On another day, using snowshoes to avoid sinking into the mud, he collected some 300 mussels that he returned to deeper water “hoping they will find safe bottom.”

The weather this year has only complicated the water level issue on Graham Lake. According to the federal government’s National Integrated Drought Information System, and the observations of anyone whose eyes are open, all of Maine is currently suffering an extended drought. Drought conditions in Hancock County, which encompasses the watershed for the Union River that feeds Graham Lake, is experiencing “moderate drought” with “developing” water shortages that call for “voluntary water use restrictions.”

Black Bear has four hydroelectric turbines capable of generating 8.9 megawatts, and its average annual production is 30,511 megawatt-hours.

Water for powering the turbines is stored in the roughly 10,000-acre Graham Lake and fed into Leonard Lake above the Ellsworth dam.

According to FERC, water is stored in Graham Lake to reduce downstream flooding during periods of high flow and is released during periods of low flow so that minimum flows can be maintained in the Union River below Graham Lake Dam.

The ability to store and release water in Graham Lake makes it possible for the hydro generators to operate at peak capacity when electric demand is high.

Black Bear’s current one-year license requires an instantaneous minimum flow of 250 cubic feet per second from May 1 to June 30 and a reduced minimum flow of 105 cubic feet per second between July 1 and April 30.

The license also requires that Black Bear Hydro maintain the water level in Graham Lake to elevations between 93.4 and 104.2 feet above sea level — a range of 10.8 feet.

In its environmental assessment issued last year, FERC rejected the company’s request to continue such significant fluctuations in the water level and recommended that the “operating range” of Graham Lake be reduced from its current 10.8-foot range to a range of just 4.5 feet in order to reduce turbidity and sedimentation, protect shoreline habitat and enhance “recreation and aesthetics.”

The reduction in water level fluctuations related to the drawdown of water to power Black Bear’s generators would reduce high water from just over 104 feet above sea level to 103 feet.

Landowners and some conservation groups are arguing for an even smaller range. That could be imposed as a condition when, or if, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection issues a permit required by the federal Clean Waters Act to allow the hydroelectric station to continue to operate.

In March, DEP denied Black Bear’s request for a water quality certification under the Clean Waters Act.

In its decision, the department ruled that the project “will not result in all waters affected (the two lakes) being suitable for all designated uses and meeting all other applicable water quality standards.” The company appealed the DEP’s action and asked the Maine Board of Environmental Protection to hold a public hearing on its application.

According to the company’s Notice of Appeal, the DEP’s denial was “unsupported” by either Maine law or the department’s “course of conduct,” failed to consider all the data and information presented by Black Bear in its certification application and was “incorrect, arbitrary and capricious.”

The delay in addressing the water level issues in Graham Lake are “a reflection of the status quo, which is why the status quo needs to be addressed urgently,” Dwayne Shaw, executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation, said Monday. “Brookfield is happy with the status quo. They’ve done everything they can to delay” the process.

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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