Sappi North America is seeking approvals to remove a dam and make other changes along the Presumpscot River in Westbrook as part of a historic agreement to restore fish populations and enhance recreational uses in the upper river.

Parties involved in the agreement, announced Wednesday, hope it will help revive fish spawning runs and fishing opportunities, as well as attract whitewater kayakers and additional tourists to Westbrook. It also marks the latest stage in a decades-long effort to clean up and restore a heavily industrialized river running through one of Maine’s most populous areas.

“We are pretty confident that Mother Nature is going to like the result here,” said Sean Mahoney of the Conservation Law Foundation, one of the organizations involved in the negotiations. “We’ve seen elsewhere that if you improve fish passage and remove dams, the fish will come back.”

The proposal calls for removing two dam spillways, or headwalls, on either side of an island at Upper Saccarappa Falls and installing a ladder-like fish passage system around Lower Saccarappa Falls. Sections of the river bottom around the upper falls – which has been heavily altered over the past several hundred years – also will be reconfigured to allow fish easier upstream passage.

The agreement was filed Tuesday with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has the authority to approve Sappi’s application to surrender its license to operate the Saccarappa hydroelectric facility.

FISH PASSAGES BENEFIT WILDLIFE

The changes are aimed at improving access to the upper river for sea-run fish such as river herring or alewives, American shad and Atlantic salmon. River herring and alewives are a staple food for bald eagles, osprey and striped bass, which are now a popular game fish in the lower Presumpscot.

Sappi or future owners of the dams above Saccarappa would be required to take additional steps to improve fish passage on the upper dams once a certain threshold of spawning fish is achieved. The company received a 10-year license extension for those dams with FERC, delaying a costly and oftentimes contentious process.

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The agreement is subject to approval by FERC, the city of Westbrook and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Other parties to the agreement include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Maine Department of Marine Resources, Friends of the Presumpscot River and the Conservation Law Foundation.

A Sappi spokeswoman said the company declined to comment on the agreement.

Michael Shaughnessy, president of Friends of the Presumpscot River, said the plan will help return a 5-mile stretch of river to conditions not seen in roughly 300 years since the first impoundments were built.

“It is an agreement we can all be very proud of,” Shaughnessy said in a written statement. “When the dams are removed and fish passage finally constructed, we will have a wonderful result for the river and for the people who live in the Presumpscot’s watershed. It will open up the longest and cleanest stretch of riverway in the most densely populated area of the state, and it will greatly enhance the economic and recreational value of the river.”

The elimination of the upper spillways and reshaping of the river bottom would result in lower water levels in the pools immediately above the falls, as well as in upper stretches of the river, which could prove controversial with some riverfront landowners, boaters and fishermen.

ENVIRONMENTAL BATTLES OVER RIVER

The Presumpscot has been the subject of regulatory, legal and environmental battles for more than 20 years.

In 2002, the Smelt Hill dam – reportedly the river’s oldest impoundment – was removed near the mouth of the Presumpscot in Falmouth. But that still left eight dams farther upstream.

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Maine DEP’s ability to require fish passage and minimum water flow standards around the Presumpscot River dams – then owned by S.D. Warren Co. – as part of water quality certifications required for federal relicensing.

The eastern spillway, or dam, and the western spillway on the Presumpscot River in Westbrook could be removed as early as 2020 under an agreement that also calls for a fish passage and a reshaped river bottom to make it easier for fish to swim upstream.

The eastern spillway, or dam, and the western spillway on the Presumpscot River in Westbrook could be removed as early as 2020 under an agreement that also calls for a fish passage and a reshaped river bottom to make it easier for fish to swim upstream. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photograrpher

Three years later, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife ordered Sappi to build a new fish passage system around the Cumberland Mills Dam. That system became operational in 2013, and since then the company has been working with Westbrook city officials as well as conservation organizations on an agreement to provide fish passage around Saccarappa Falls.

Per the agreement, passage around the lower falls would be provided by a “double Denil” fish ladder, and Sappi also would install a fish-counting facility at the exit of the system. The company has until 2024 to begin operating the counting facility.

The upper falls are more complicated because there are actually two dams, or spillways, separated by an island. The agreement states that Sappi will remove both spillways and work to allow fish passage via a two-channel system that also seeks to re-create a more natural topography on the river bottom. The dams could be removed as early as 2020.

The total cost to Sappi for the design and construction of all projects is capped at roughly $5 million.

VISUAL, RECREATIONAL IMPROVEMENTS

In 2013, Westbrook officials and representatives of the conservation groups had supported Sappi’s request for an extension of the deadline to install fish passage at Saccarappa Falls in order to find a solution that mimics the natural river bottom. 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.

“The whole site has been altered so much over the past 150 years that it is hard to know what it looked like,” Shaughnessy said. “But we do know from historical records about the fish that passed there. … There is great habitat for herring and shad, and there is also some habitat for salmon as well.”

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Westbrook officials could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday. However, city officials have said they hoped a more natural-looking river would be aesthetically pleasing to local residents, workers and visitors. The removal of the dam spillways also could draw whitewater kayakers to the fast-running water and rapids created by the river’s 29-foot drop in the Saccarappa Falls section.

DAM REMOVAL, AND ‘RENAISSANCE’

If approved by federal regulators as well as Sappi officials, the Presumpscot River dam removals would be the latest in a series of river restoration projects in Maine that have drawn international attention.

In 1999, Edwards Dam was removed from the Kennebec River in Augusta, reopening a 17-mile stretch of the river to alewives, striped bass, sturgeon and other sea-run fish.

But the most ambitious work has taken place on the Penobscot River, where an unprecedented agreement between a hydroelectric company, conservation groups, the Penobscot Nation and government agencies led to the removal of two large dams in 2012 and 2013, as well as construction of a bypass around a third dam. More than 1.2 million alewives, 7,800 American shad and nearly 1,600 striped bass were counted returning to the Penobscot this year.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat whose district includes the Presumpscot River watershed, praised the agreement with Sappi.

“The renaissance of this once highly polluted river has driven robust economic development in Westbrook and other communities in recent years. This project will keep that momentum going,” Pingree said in a written statement. “I applaud Sappi and all the other project partners for reaching this historic agreement. It’s a testament to how we can work together to support both Maine industries and our natural resources.”