Negotiation and compromise

The first round of testimony for and against the relicensing of Ellsworth’s hydroelectric dam at the base of Leonard Lake downtown and the storage dam at Graham Lake concluded in November. Additional filings and responses highlight the competing interests wishing to weigh in on the license that Black Bear Hydro Partners needs to continue operating the two dams as well as the hydro-electric power station.

Before the downtown dam’s construction in 1907, the Union River was little more than a large brook that seasonally produced hefty freshets that damaged property such as the sawmills and other endeavors drawing riparian power from the river’s flow. Fish passage was unrestrained to and from the streams and ponds north of Ellsworth. The headwaters reach all the way to Great Pond.

Since the two dams’ construction, the spring freshets still occur. Most of them are controlled, limiting the river’s potential negative impact on the shore. The excess water generates clean, controllable, renewable electric energy.

The Graham Lake shoreline is the location of more than 755 tax-paying properties. Leonard Lake south hosts several dozen permanent residences. These property owners are obviously concerned about water levels and the range of water heights allowed.

Without the two dams, the Union River would revert to a narrow stream. The shorefront properties on the manmade impoundments dubbed “lakes” would abut grasslands, mud bogs and stumps — permanently. The current licensing process is working to rein in the water height changes while allowing Black Bear to generate the power it needs to justify dam operation and power contracts.

The draft environmental assessment from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, one of several oversight agencies that will adjudicate Black Bear’s relicensing application, has recently received push-back testimony from Black Bear. The applicant strongly disagrees with a proposal to limit the highs and lows of the impounded waters. Black Bear’s vigorous response cites water clarity, sedimentation, erosion along the banks and water-level management goals.

The offered science and the conflicting opinions about same, as well as the competing strategies for fish passage up and down the river, have created tension and testimony that may prove to be more contentious than necessary.

Data provided by Black Bear Hydro asserts that it is manually moving over 315,000 adult herring into Graham Lake each spring, a two-fold increase over 2015. These herring, some tagged, are making their way upstream to the Union River’s multiple headwaters, which is the goal of any comprehensive fisheries management plan.

Critics complain that eels and alewives experience excessive mortality rates passing through the power station as they return to sea, where they become an important part of the food chain for other fisheries. Black Bear Hydro’s science contends that the increased spring stocking program creates upriver spawning for upward of 20-30 million fish annually, offsetting the excessive mortality perception. Conditions of the dam’s relicensing specify additional steps to further limit mortality while working to increase fish migration rates.

Interested parties on both sides are fervent in their positions. Not unlike the pitched battles over wind power farms, transmission lines for electricity, propane storage tanks, pipelines for natural gas and oil or nuclear plants, not everyone gets what they want. Our energy supply industry is a complicated process, and woe is the segment that fails to meet consumer demand

However, if the goals include reliable, controllable energy that everyone can use and is considered green and clean, while property, fish and environmental stakeholders can come away with sustainable gains, the process must be considered a win-win. Getting to the end is often messy, expensive and unnecessarily adversarial. It need not be a zero-sum negotiation. The lines are drawn. The next step is bringing those lines closer together.

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