Union River’s future is at a crossroads

There is a great wall in downtown Ellsworth. Looking north from the Route 1 bridge you can barely see the 65-foot concrete dam that divides the tide waters of the Union River with its upper watershed. If you paddle up the river or walk the banks behind the library it is clearly visible, and if you swim up toward the dam from the bay it is impossible to miss.

Fish are being prevented from getting over the dam going upstream and being chewed up when coming downstream. The dam is currently being reviewed for a new license. Now is the time to make our voices heard — we want the operators to treat our natural resources responsibly and with respect. Let the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) know that we want effective access into and out of the watershed.

Before the Leonard Lake Dam was built, cutting the Union off from its native fisheries, Ellsworth was a shipbuilding and timber town. The river powered its growth during the 1800s. During this time countless dams blocked the river. However, none ever fully stopped the spring runs of salmon, alewives, shad and other sea-run fish. Spring freshets periodically opened the river. Fish would make it. This changed in 1907 when the last concrete was poured into the Leonard Lake Dam. For decades no migratory fish made it around this wall in the river, with the exception of young American eels — or elvers — which slither up the rocky ledge on the side of the dam.

In 1992, when the dam’s license was last renewed, the dam was required to build a fishway over the dam. After the dam received its license it managed to convince FERC that it could trap the fish and truck them over the dam just as effectively as a fishway could. This has not been the case — only a small fraction of the alewives that the river can support are getting over the dam and when fish are leaving the river to return to the sea, they are being killed by the turbines.

Several years ago, the Downeast Salmon Federation (DSF) began noticing chopped and battered adult American eels lining the banks of the river in October. DSF staff, volunteers and members of the Union Salmon Association began watching the river each fall. Unfortunately the first large kill they discovered was not out of the ordinary. Eels and young alewives have been found dead each fall since.

This year from Oct. 12 to Oct. 31 we documented dead and dying young alewives on seven separate occasions, observing nearly 500 individual fish. From a subsample of 104 alewives that we collected, 69 percent were missing at least one eye, indicating trauma encountered as they passed through the dam’s turbines or over its downstream fish “passage” spillway. Dead or dying American eels were observed on two separate occasions over the same time period. Brookfield Energy — which operates this hydro project — conducted its own daily monitoring counts and recorded over 700 dead alewives on one day in mid-October.

The city of Ellsworth, the towns of the Union River watershed and the coastal communities that depend on healthy, productive fisheries to survive are being given a choice. Continuing business as usual does not help bring new jobs and a better quality of life to Ellsworth and the watershed. Business as usual is killing fish. A Union River with robust fish runs could contribute once again to our local economy. Alewives are a quality source of lobster bait and forage food for near-shore ground fisheries. Healthy populations of salmon, shad and sea-run brook trout could support local fishing guides and draw new visitors to our community. These fishermen and women will stay in Ellsworth, eat at its restaurants and shop at our stores. Sea-run fish bring nutrients in from the ocean and feed the land and wildlife of the watershed. Local jobs come with a healthy fishery. Restored populations of smelt, tomcod, alewives, shad and salmon could literally put food on our tables.

FERC is considering what is the best future for the Union River. The river is a public resource that has been “loaned” to a private corporation. Your neighbors, City Council, selectmen, state representatives and FERC need to hear from you. Tell them that Brookfield must use our public resources responsibly and with respect. Tell them to require upstream and downstream state of the art fish passage for all of the river’s native fish species.

For more information on this issue or to learn how to get involved or comment to FERC, please contact the Union Salmon Association or DSF (www.mainesalmonrivers.org). This is our chance to get our river back. This license, once issued, is valid for 30 years.

Barbara Witham is a Maine native and has been a resident of Lamoine since 1987. She grew up hunting and fishing with her dad, a Maine game warden. She is the secretary of the Union Salmon Association.

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