Story by Steve Fuller, Reporter at The Ellsworth American
WALTHAM — On paper it may not sound like the most exciting topic, but what will become of the two dams on the Union River in the next several decades was interesting enough to bring 40 people out on a cold night last week to talk about it.
The crowd filled the Waltham town office for a discussion organized by the Downeast Salmon Federation (DSF) and moderated by its executive director, Dwayne Shaw.
The dams in question are the Leonard Lake and Graham Lake dams, which date to 1907 and 1922, respectively (the present Graham Lake dam dates to 1923, replacing an earthen dam from a year earlier that washed out). Operated by Bangor Hydro until 1999, the dams have changed hands and are now owned by Brookfield Renewable Energy Group, based in Toronto.
Brookfield is seeking a new, 30-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for both dams. The Leonard Lake Dam is a hydroelectric facility that has the capacity to generate 8.9 megawatts of electricity. The dam at Graham Lake blocked the flow of the Union River and created the nearly 8,000-acre lake, which essentially serves as a reservoir to feed the downstream hydro dam.
The Leonard Lake Dam generates power on an on-demand basis, and Brookfield can draw down as much as 11 feet of water from Graham Lake in order to make that power. In a lake that is relatively shallow even when it is at full capacity, 11 feet can make a big difference.
This map shows the size and shape of Graham and Leonard lakes in relation to the original course of the Union River before the dams that created the lakes were built (in 1922 and 1907, respectively). The original river course serves as the town line between Waltham and Mariaville, as that boundary dates to the 1830s — almost a century before the creation of Graham Lake.
GRAPHIC BY TIM SUELLENTROP/REACH MAINE MARKETING
A chart produced by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife shows average depths ranging from 15 to 20 feet across much of the lake with a few deeper spots (in the 40-foot range) over the original river channel.
While DSF’s first concern is fish, homeowners on the lake said they are concerned about water levels. Throughout much of this summer there were wide expanses of exposed shoreline as the water level receded, leaving residents worried about the values of their properties.
Shaw and others noted that those lower water levels are not good for fish, either, especially in winter months when sheets of ice can ground on the lake bottom.
In a petition circulated at the Jan. 25 meeting, DSF said it is pushing for FERC to require Brookfield to make modifications to the two dams to allow for safe fish passage of “all native fish species,” including Atlantic salmon and American eels.
Those in attendance wondered what might happen if FERC did do that and the financial price tag proved more than Brookfield wanted to invest — would the dams be sold? Torn down? Might municipal ownership be an option?
Shaw said DSF is not pushing for dam removal and is instead focused on safe passage for fish. But even the possibility of the dams being removed — with many on the Penobscot River removed in recent years, the idea is more than just hypothetical or an academic exercise — was cause for concern among some residents.
One man who did not identify himself said he and his wife are building their dream home on the shores of Graham Lake, and he made it clear that they do not want “to live on a [expletive] river” — that they are building it as a lakefront home and want it to remain a lakefront home.
The petition also calls on FERC to require that Brookfield “stabilize water levels” in Graham Lake. That would be better for property values, it notes, and less fluctuation in water levels would also mean less erosion along the shoreline.
Shaw and other DSF officials noted that there are examples from elsewhere in Maine of good fish passage being achieved while still maintaining the water levels that property owners have come to expect.
They said the most important thing residents can do right now is to contact FERC and make their feelings about the dams and related issues known. They also said residents should contact their local town and city officials and state legislators, so that they know their constituents care about the matter.
To make a comment on the project, go to https://ferconline.ferc.gov and click on “eComment.” Fill in the information that is asked for, and click “Submit.” An email will then be sent to the address provided with a link. Click on the link, enter “P-2727-000” in the docket number field, then hit “Search” and then “Select” when that project is listed.
Then a field will pop up for comments to be made (there is a 6,000 character limit), and click “Send Comment” when done.