A new law that takes effect Friday will ensure increased public input, greater legislative oversight and more transparency whenever a dam has to be relicensed.
Assistant House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said the new dam relicensing law – L.D. 1826 – means that sportsmen, waterfront property owners and the outdoor recreation industry should have a greater say in such matters as water releases and levels in recreational bodies of water.
The new law will ensure that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection has a plan in place to address dam relicensing deadlines and that those plans are shared with legislators. The legislation was approved by the House and Senate, but was not signed by Gov. Paul LePage, according to McCabe. McCabe said the DEP helped him craft the legislation.
“The state has forfeited too much by missing deadlines in the past. These are mistakes that have serious implications for wildlife, traditional sports, property owners and our recreation and tourism economies,” McCabe said Wednesday in a statement issued by the Maine State House Majority Office.
McCabe introduced the legislation in response to the public outcry over missed licensing deadlines, which resulted in the state losing its authority to weigh in on water quality issues.
“The one that hit home for me was Flagstaff Lake,” McCabe said in a telephone interview Wednesday night.
Last year, the Portland Press Herald reported that DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho missed deadlines for three dam relicensing projects, irrevocably waiving the state’s authority to set terms for water levels in reservoirs and rivers that affect waterfront property owners, fish spawning and passage, and recreation opportunities.
The story said that Maine had never before missed a water certification deadline, on which hinges the state’s powers to dictate terms in what is otherwise a federal relicensing process.
The paper reported that the DEP missed relicensing deadlines in November 2011 for the dam at Flagstaff Lake in Franklin County and for the Forest City dam on the New Brunswick border and the West Branch Storage Project dams on the St. Croix River in eastern Maine in 2013.
The missed deadline at Flagstaff squashed a nearly decade-long effort by residents in the neighboring town of Eustis to stop the dam’s owner, Florida Power & Light, from lowering lake levels to the point where boating, swimming and other recreation became impossible. The Flagstaff dam has since been sold to Canada-based Brookfield Power.
Though the new law won’t change what happened at Flagstaff Lake, McCabe said it should ensure that relicensing reviews won’t be overlooked again.
McCabe said it is absolutely essential that the people whose homes, livelihoods and recreational interests are tied to lakes and rivers have a chance for input on how large water bodies are managed.
As an example, McCabe says it doesn’t make good economic sense for hundreds of visitors to travel to Maine to go whitewater rafting on the Dead or Kennebec rivers and find out when they arrive that the planned water releases are not going to happen.
“This goes beyond selling water for power,” he said. “Providing public access to islands and beaches on Flagstaff Lake are a big deal. Right now there is a level of insecurity, that there is not enough emphasis being placed on recreation.”