Maine’s rivers belong to all of us. They flow through our cities and towns and through our history. For the last half-century, the state of Maine has been a leader in protecting our rivers against damage by the hydroelectric power industry. Maine currently has authority to negotiate with dam owners for operating conditions that benefit state residents, our rivers and the species and jobs that rely on them.
Proposed legislation included in the Senate’s Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015 could negate three decades of work aimed at establishing a level playing field wherein the interests of all parties, not just the hydroelectric power industry, can be taken into account. The industry is seeking changes to federal legislation that would silence state, tribal and local voices; strip Maine of its authority to hold dam owners accountable for water quality violations; and end critical protections for fish and wildlife. While many aspects of our nation’s energy systems need to be upgraded and improved, this should not result in harm to our valuable natural resources. We do not believe this bill helps increase the hydropower supply or improves the regulatory process.
Maine has a reputation for collaboration among hydropower dam owners, state officials, local communities and natural resource agencies.The system works well to balance the needs of the public for electricity, clean drinking water, recreational opportunities and protection of fish and wildlife that depend on our rivers. But it did not happen by accident; it took decades of work on the part of individuals and organizations who believed the need for energy should be balanced with the needs of the fish and wildlife that share our rivers and persuaded the Congress to adopt amendments to the Federal Power Act, or FPA, to achieve this balance.
There are dam owners who seek to return to the bad old days and the bad old ways, where they were not answerable for the destruction of public resources. We do not want to see riverfront communities lose the opportunities Maine has gained to collaborate with dam owners and natural resource agencies during hydropower relicensing. Nor do we want to see these communities forced to take on additional costs for protecting fish and wildlife as the balance shifts away from dam owners to local taxpayers. We do not want to see Maine lose negotiating power and face new obstacles to its efforts to restore sea-run fish to our rivers.
Since removal of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in 1999, water quality has improved. Now, nearly 3 million native alewives return annually to the Kennebec, the largest migration of its kind on the eastern seaboard. Alewives support Maine’s commercial fishing industry, as well as its freshwater and marine food chains. Alewives feed nearly every fish, bird or mammal found in Maine — including bald eagles, osprey, seals, whales, cod, haddock, tuna, striped bass and bluefish. Section 3001(g) of the Energy Modernization Act of 2015 sets back efforts to restore commercially valuable and iconic fish stocks that have been denied access to their ancestral habitat by existing hydropower dams. Had this bill been the law of the land before the removal of Edwards Dam, we might never have achieved these important benefits. And, if enacted, we may not see similar benefits on the Saco, Penobscot, Mousam, Kennebec and Union Rivers where federal hydroelectric licenses are under consideration.
Hydropower licenses are issued for up to five decades; facilities that are coming up for review now were first constructed before our modern environmental laws were put in place. The public gets a chance to ensure that dam owners make changes to bring their facilities up to modern standards, but it’s an opportunity that may come only once in a generation. Many communities rely on rivers for drinking water. Municipal utilities require costly technology to make river water safe for drinking. If Congress enacts this hydro “power grab,” the owners of dams will be able to skirt local laws as well as the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and other water and wildlife protections. If this legislation passes, we will lose our authority to shape dam operations to the interests of our communities and businesses.
It is important to let Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King know that the people of Maine demand a voice in the management of our rivers so that the public’s interest in clean drinking water, the protection of fish and wildlife and recreational opportunities will be preserved.
Rivers are important in their own right. As United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said a century ago, “A river is not an amenity, it is a treasure.”
Clinton B. Townsend is a member of the board of directors of Maine Rivers. Landis Hudson is the executive director of Maine Rivers.