Considering the case for Union River dams

Federal licenses for the Union River and Graham Lake dams expire at the end of this year. The review and relicensing process for the dams has been underway for several years. As that happens, it is worth pausing to consider what is involved and what is at stake. For the many whose exposure to the Union River is limited to crossing the bridge in downtown Ellsworth or the Route 1A span at Ellsworth Falls, it is easy to forget that the dams even exist. The Union River dam has been in place for more than a century. The dam at the foot of Graham Lake was built some 90 years ago. Their presence has impacts throughout the river’s watershed.

As the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission decides whether to relicense the dams for another 30 years — this process last took place in 1987 — we trust that serious consideration will be given to the input that members of the community have taken time to provide. The issues relating to the dams are multiple and varied. The dams exist to generate power, providing electricity to the power grid. With the formation of Leonard and Graham lakes, many thousands of feet of new waterfront property were created, that owners have come to value and appreciate these past 100 years.

However, there are concerns about fish passage, with upstream passage effectively blocked for some species and downstream passage at times dangerous, or even deadly, for others. Fluctuating water levels on Graham Lake, and the effect on fish and the overall ecosystem, are a source of frustration and worry for residents and recreational users there.

Everything from maintaining the status quo to not relicensing the dams, and removal of one or both, have been contemplated by the various stakeholders involved and others interested in the matter. That is natural, as this once-in-a-generation relicensing process provides the only opportunity for effecting any type of serious change to the situation until 2047. While hard to imagine today how different the river might look under a dam-removal scenario, a glance at early 20th-century maps offers a reminder of the reality confronting earlier residents before the dams were built.

At the Union River dam, fishkill events in recent years have prompted concern among residents, environmental advocacy groups and government regulators. Dam operator Brookfield Renewable says some of those events were due to environmental anomalies at the time. Steps have been taken to address other causal factors. Some say that is not enough. Federal regulators also rightfully note that as long as the Union River dam remains in place (it has electricity-generating turbines, while the Graham Lake dam does not), there always will be some risk of fish getting killed. “Even if a facility is operated as intended and all actions are taken to minimize or prevent fish injury and mortality, some injury and mortality” to fish could result, FERC officials said in a letter earlier this year.

But if fish passage can be improved, it should be. Whatever the causes may be, dead fish floating in the river is not the sort of image that Ellsworth wants to project, whether to residents or visitors.

Organizers of the Ellsworth Green Plan effort say their feedback from the community identified the Union River as a prime asset. Though Ellsworth’s days as a bustling lumber port are long past, there is an increasing realization that the river can once again, play a larger role in the city’s future. The dams will have significant impact on that role, whatever happens.