When a dam owner delays creating a fish passage on a river, environmental groups usually get angry.

But that’s not the case in Westbrook.

Environmental and city officials are celebrating an agreement they reached with Sappi Fine Paper North America that gives the paper company a two-year extension of a 2015 deadline to construct a fish passage at the Saccarappa Falls dam on the Presumpscot River.

By allowing Sappi to postpone its plans to surrender its federal license to operate the hydroelectric dam, the groups get more time to develop a fish passage that will be more natural-looking than Sappi’s most recent plan. Sappi had initially proposed retaining one of the two dams at the falls and installing a concrete fish ladder to get fish over the dam.

Two years is not too long to wait to assure that a fish passage works properly, said Dusti Faucher, one of the early leaders of Friends of the Presumpscot River, a grassroots organization formed in 1992 to improve the river’s water quality.

She said that’s a “reasonable delay given the complexity of the site, the absolute need to get it right and the fact that the river has had some sort of a barrier at Saccarappa Falls for more than 200 years.”

The agreement, the result of several months of negotiations, includes a cost-sharing commitment between the city of Westbrook and Sappi to hire a consultant to create a design for an alternative fish passage that would meet the diverse goals of environmental groups and the city.

The environmental groups want assurance that a fish passage will actually work to help fish navigate up the river.

The city, which sees river restoration as an economic development tool, believes that a series of natural-looking rapids would be more aesthetically appealing to office workers and downtown shoppers and residents. They say rapids would also serve as a draw for whitewater kayakers.

“It now seems possible to end up with both dams removed and an all-natural solution to the fish passage challenge,” said Bill Baker, director of business and community relations for the city.

Westbrook’s downtown area has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs over the past two decades. Before South Africa-based Sappi purchased the S.D. Warren Paper Mill in 1995, the facility employed roughly 3,000 people. About 300 workers remain.

Westbrook leaders envision a transformed downtown teeming with offices, hotels, shops and restaurants drawn to the city for its business-friendly policies, relatively inexpensive real estate and local amenities.

Restoring fish passage is complicated by the fact that the riverbed at the falls has been repeatedly altered since the first dam was erected in the 1700s, Faucher said. She said the consultant’s study, which will examine the riverbed’s topography and historical water flow data, will develop a plan for creating a river that looks natural and allows American shad, Atlantic salmon and river herring to pass above the falls each spring.

According to the agreement, Westbrook will provide $50,000 and Sappi will provide $150,000 toward hiring a consultant.

Sappi will pay for the dam removal and restoration, Faucher said. It’s not known what the final price tag for the entire project will be until the consulting work is completed, company officials said.

Donna Cassese, the mill’s managing director, said Sappi has worked to build a collaborative process that is focused on “safe, effective and timely” fish passage over the falls.

The Presumpscot is one of the nation’s most heavily impounded and oldest industrial rivers. The oldest dam, the Smelt Hill dam near the mouth of the river, was removed in 2002. But eight dams are still standing. Upstream from the Cumberland Mills dam in Westbrook, where fish a passage was installed last spring, the river essentially is a slow-moving lake.

According to its licensing agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Sappi must provide fish passage at each dam above the Saccarappa Falls dam once each dam reaches specific numbers of returning sea-run fish.

Restoring historic runs of sea-run fish will help boost the health of Casco Bay and restore fish stocks in the Gulf of Maine because herring and shad are important forage foods for other fish, said Sean Mahoney, executive vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation.

“Getting more of these forage fish back to Maine rivers like the Presumpscot can go a long way to rebuilding inshore fisheries,” he said.

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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