Degraded Water Quality on the St. Croix River: Maine Legislature Circumvents Its Responsibilities, EPA Fails To Fulfill Its Legal Obligations

Ben Carmichael Ben Carmichael

Alewives Prevented from Returning to 98% of their Natural, Available Habitat

Sean Mahoney, CLF: (207) 671 0845
Ben Carmichael, CLF: (617) 850-1743

PORTLAND, ME May 31, 2012—The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) today filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to restore alewives, a key forage and bait fish, to the St. Croix River. The suit alleges that the EPA failed to review changes to a Maine law that blocks passage to 98% of alewives’ natural, available habitat on the St. Croix as they are required to do under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The suit further alleges that as a result of this unsubstantiated obstruction, the Maine legislature has intentionally and effectively changed the fundamental water quality standards of the St. Croix River, and that the EPA failed to fulfill its legal obligations to review and reject that change.

Sean Mahoney, VP & Director CLF Maine, stated: “For far too long Maine law has prevented alewives, a critical forage fish for birds, fish and mammals, as well as a key source of bait for the Downeast lobster industry, from returning to their native waters. This law was based on anecdotal information in 1995 that has since been proven entirely wrong by state and federal scientific and peer-reviewed studies. The law is fundamentally at odds with the legal requirement that the St. Croix River provide natural habitat unaffected by human activity for these fish and EPA has a continuing obligation to review and reject this change in that requirement.”

By passing legislation explicitly aimed at preventing a naturally occurring species from accessing 98 percent of its natural habitat in the St. Croix River above the Grand Falls Dam, the Maine Legislature changed the water quality standards for that section of the St. Croix from Class A to at best Class B.

Bill Townsend, a longstanding member of CLF and one of the deans of Maine’s environmental community noted that when he served as President of Maine Rivers, it obtained the funding and data to support studies that alewives are not detrimental to small-mouth bass populations, the original basis for the law.  “The failure of the Maine Legislature to change the law in the face of that evidence and of the EPA to take every possible step to address that wrong is unacceptable.  Once again, CLF is able to bring some needed legal muscle to try to remove a barrier that is harmful to a healthy ecosystem and a thriving economy.”

Alewives, an anadromous species, are native to the St. Croix River and play an important ecological role in both freshwater and marine food chains and nutrient cycles. Based on false claims that non-native smallmouth bass were struggling due to the restoration of native alewife stocks, the Maine legislature passed a bill in 1995 that blocked alewife passage at the Woodland Dam and Grand Falls Dam on the St. Croix. In 2008, even after several peer-reviewed scientific studies showed alewives have no impact on small mouth bass, the Maine Legislature allowed alewife passage at the Woodland Dam, restoring only 2 percent of available habitat for alewives.

Background on the Clean Water Act

The purpose of the CWA is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” Any change to an existing water quality standard must be consistent with the state’s anti-degradation policy and must be submitted to the EPA for review. Under Section 303(c)(2)(A) of the CWA, any changes or revisions to a state’s water quality standards must be submitted to the EPA for review and approval or disapproval. Even if a state fails to submit to changes or revisions to the EPA, the EPA is obligated to review those changes.


The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) protects New England’s environment for the benefit of all people. Using the law, science and the market, CLF creates solutions that preserve natural resources, build healthy communities, and sustain a vibrant economy region-wide. Founded in 1966, CLF is a nonprofit, member-supported organization with offices in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.