Presumpscot River Will Flow a Little More Freely Thanks to Historic Settlement

Sean Mahoney | @SeanCLF

River herring and shad play a critical role in the health of Maine’s coastal fisheries, serving as food for cod, salmon, and striped bass and as a bait fish for lobstermen. Their populations have dipped dangerously low over the last century, however, as dams built to power riverside industries blocked access to traditional spawning grounds.

CLF has been working for years to make sure that these fish populations have a fighting chance to recover. We were part of a successful effort to re-open Maine’s St. Croix River to river herring and have been working for several years on dam relicensing proceedings on the Presumpscot River in the southern part of the state. This week, that work paid off with a settlement agreement that will result in the removal of two dams on the Presumpscot in Westbrook.

The Presumpscot River was once home to hundreds of thousands of migratory fish before it was dammed. It was then essentially treated as though it were a public sewer, with polluters dumping into it indiscriminately. Restoring the productivity of fish populations along this long-industrialized river is essential not just for those of us who fish along the river, but also for the health of our fishing industry in Casco Bay and the Gulf of Maine.

This milestone settlement agreement was forged by CLF and our partners at the Friends of the Presumpscot River with Sappi Fine Paper – the owner of the two dams – the City of Westbrook, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Maine Department of Marine Resources. In addition to removing the dams that comprised the Saccarappa Falls hydroelectric project in downtown Westbrook, Sappi Paper will build a fish ladder and modify the river bed to allow for a natural fish passage so that sea-run fish like alewives, blueback herring, American shad, and Atlantic salmon can once again access prime spawning grounds along a five-mile stretch of the river.

The settlement agreement builds on two decades of work to restore fish passage on the Presumpscot. The first dam on the river, Smelt Hill dam, was removed in 2002 and, in 2010, CLF and Friends of Presumpscot River forced Sappi to install a fish passage at Cumberlands Falls, just below the current Saccarappa Falls project. This latest agreement also compels future action on the river – requiring either the removal of the next two dams upriver or installation of a fish passage once fish populations reach certain levels at Saccarappa Falls.

Saccarappa Falls is a complex site that has multiple channels and falls, and it has been altered, blasted, and built upon extensively for 250 years. That made reaching this agreement equally complex, and it took two and a half years and countless hours of legal and scientific work – not to mention historic research – by CLF and our partners at Friends of the Presumpscot River, particularly their attorney Ron Kreisman, to achieve this result. For that, Ron and our partners deserve a great deal of credit and thanks.

The positive impacts of this agreement will be felt for generations to come, providing both environmental and economic benefits. The dams’ removal will allow native fish access to their historic spawning habitat and restore keystone species of river herring and shad to healthy numbers – which is good for the overall health of Casco Bay. Westbrook and local river communities will also benefit – the dams’ removal will be a key component in the revival of downtown Westbrook, restoring the beauty and majesty of Saccarappa Falls while also providing new whitewater recreational opportunities in the region.

Even as we celebrate this success, CLF will continue our work to free rivers of dams that are no longer needed and that impede the resurgence of fish species critical to the overall health of our rivers, oceans, and economy.

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