WESTBROOK – The great boiling schools of blueback herring, shad and alewives that once passed through Westbrook on their way up the Presumpscot River disappeared hundreds of years ago.
But by May 1, 2013 — at the latest — the stage will be set for their return.
That is the date Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Roland D. Martin set for completion of a fish passage through the Cumberland Mills dam. When it is complete, the project will trigger construction of more fish passages on five of the eight remaining dams that block the river on its 25-mile course from Sebago Lake into Casco Bay in Portland.
Collectively, the fishways will help to resurrect the natural qualities of a river that has been shackled to industrial production and other commercial enterprises for centuries.
“It is an historic milestone,” said Will Plumley, a founder and former president of the Friends of the Presumpscot River, a citizens group which led the push for the Cumberland Mills passageway.
Earlier this month, Martin approved a final plan for the fishway design and ordered the dam’s owner, Sappi Fine Paper North America, to build and maintain the structure next to the paper mill in downtown Westbrook. Sappi officials said construction will begin as early as next spring.
Martin’s order follows a battle to keep the river open to fish that began in the 1730s, when European settlers started to erect the first dams along the fast-moving river. Chief Polin of the Rockameecock Indians walked to Boston at least once to meet with the royal governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay to ask for a fish passage at a dam at Presumpscot Falls between Portland and Falmouth. Although the governor was sympathetic, the passageway was never built and Polin was killed in a skirmish with the settlers in 1756.
The most recent effort to breach the barriers that block the migratory paths of shad, eels and other fish started nearly 20 years ago. That’s when residents organized as the Friends of the Presumpscot River to successfully block construction of a proposed de-inking plant in Windham.
Plumley said the proposed plant would have discharged waste into the river just as the federal Clean Water Act was starting to bring about its recovery from decades of pollution.
After its success on the de-inking project, the organization set its sights on restoring the fish that are ecologically important to both the Presumpscot and the Gulf of Maine.
“They are a key link in the food chain for just about everything that swims in the Gulf of Maine, the river itself and any animal that walks along the river’s banks,” said Patrick Keliher, director of the Bureau of Sea Run Fisheries and Habitat at the Department of Marine Resources.
The fish attract other wildlife and provide an important recreational resource. Once herring and alewives return to the river, so will their voracious predators, striped bass, prized by sports fishermen. Alewives and blueback herring are a major source of bait for lobster fishermen.
Plumley and his group decided to focus on improving water quality from the top of the river down and restoring the fisheries from the bottom up.
“We knew it would take a long time,” said Michael Shaughnessy, another founder of the group.
The first impediment on the river, the Smelt Hill Dam in Falmouth, was removed in 2002. The dam, a Central Maine Power hydroelectric facility with a fish passage, was heavily damaged in a 1996 flood. Once the dam was razed, alewives and shad poured back into the first seven miles of the river and its tributaries, including Mill Brook and Highland Lake. The Presumpscot Falls were revealed for the first time since 1732.
“All sorts of great things have happened since,” said Dusti Faucher of Windham, president of the Friends of the Presumpscot River.
Faucher said people suddenly rediscovered the river. The awakening sparked the Sebago to the Sea Trail project to create a 28-mile bike and walking path along the river from Sebago Lake to Casco Bay.
But efforts to create fish passages at the dams upstream from Smelt Hill, all owned by Sappi, proved much more difficult. On one side were the Department of Marine Resources, the Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and private organizations such as the Friends of the Presumpscot River and American Rivers.
On the other side was Sappi, which said the high cost of constructing fish passageways would threaten the jobs of the 340 employees at its paper mill in Westbrook.
Faucher’s group, represented by lawyers Ron Kreisman of Hallowell and Sean Mahoney, vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Maine Advocacy Center, first worked to get fish passageways on the five hydro dams above the Cumberland Mills dam, which are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s dam licensing process. Sappi fought the effort all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the fishway proponents.
The group went to work in 2006 on the Cumberland Mills dam, which unlike the hydropower dams, is used to draw water for cooling and not subject to FERC licensing. Using Maine’s fishway law, last invoked before the Industrial Revolution, the group petitioned the fish and wildlife commissioner to require the owner of dams to provide passage of migratory fish on Maine rivers.
“It was absolutely precedent-setting,” said Mahoney.
At one point, the two sides appeared to have worked out a compromise, and Sappi announced it would remove the dam entirely. A year later the deal had fallen apart. Faucher said it became clear that removal of the dam was not practical.
Finally, Martin ordered Sappi to move ahead. In the past year, the two sides shelved their differences and came up with a final design for the passageway instead.
“It has been a wonderful cooperative effort” since the parties started working together, said Faucher.
Sappi Managing Director Donna Cassese was not available for an interview.
“We are committed to remaining a vital part of Westbrook,” she said in a prepared statement.
The new passage at the Cumberland Mills Dam will cost about $4 million to $5 million. Sappi must then install a fish passage at the next dam upriver, at Saccarappa Falls, by 2015 and its four other dams after that, according to how many fish show up. Sappi officials said the cost of the five other fishways was estimated at $15 million.
The company may consider providing public access to the Cumberland Mills fishway in the future, depending on safety issues and other concerns, said Amy Olson, Sappi spokeswoman.
Faucher estimates that the campaign to bring fish passageways to the Presumpscot probably cost millions of dollars in legal fees and federal and state government staff time. Her group alone has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money and volunteer time, she said.
Mahoney called the result worth every penny.
“To be able to cast a fly in on the river, downtown, that is priceless,” said Mahoney.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: [email protected]