The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) recently issued a Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) for S.D. Warren’s Eel Weir Hydroelectric Project. This brings the project one step closer to a new, 30-to-50-year operating license.

“It’s a huge document,” said Phil Boissonneault of the Portland Water District. “There are no really drastic changes. They’ve allowed an August increase of a three-inch variance. Their conclusion is that it will not impact any resource and it may improve the fishing.”

Another proposed change in the draft EA includes an increase by one week in the amount of time the lake level can be at full pond.

Eel Weir has been operating under an annual license, renewed automatically, since its original license expired in March of 2004.

Located at the outlet of Sebago Lake at the headwaters of the Presumpscot River, the Eel Weir Dam provides hydroelectric power for the paper mill in Westbrook owned by S.D. Warren (also known as Sappi Fine Paper).

Opponents and proponents of the proposed relicensing have until August 25 of this year to file comments with FERC.

Although FERC has announced plans to hold a public meeting before the end of the comment period, the date, time and place have yet to be announced.

According to Dana Murch, dams and hydro-supervisor for Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), “The Lake Level Management Plan (LLMP) from 1997 as a general statement says to fill the lake in the spring and draw it down on a prescribed line through November 1. S.D. Warren proposed the same plan with minor changes. FERC (in this Environmental Assessment) is saying S.D. Warren’s plan is okay.”

But some individuals and groups have criticized the management of the dam and, in particular, the rules that govern its operation.

Roger Wheeler, president of the Friends of Sebago Lake (FOSL) said, “Our interpretation of where they’re going to put the water level is that they’ve raised it everywhere they can. Lake regulation is the worst thing that can happen to wetlands.”

FOSL believes that, unless the LLMP of 1997 is adjusted to conform to the 100-year historic average for Sebago Lake, erosion will continue and “restoration of the natural beaches of Sebago to their former size and condition” will not be possible.

A number of their members have filed complaints with FERC and are waiting on the agency to see how they rule.

“One of the critical things is the storage capacity,” said Wheeler. “The lake has only 60 percent of its former storage capacity. And in May, June and July, it’s a lot less.”

A greater storage capacity would allow the lake to take on additional water from melting snow cover and heavy spring rains without causing levels to exceed the flowage easements. The widespread flooding and erosion that resulted from last spring’s heavy precipitation is the most recent occurrence that could have been avoided by a lower water level.

But not everyone agrees with the concept of lower lake levels. A number of Sebago Lake marinas and associations sent a letter to FERC in August of 2004 that supported the higher levels.

And last spring, owner of Sebago Lake Marina Charlie Frechette wrote S.D. Warren an email that commended them for their management of the dam during the spring’s heavy rainfall.

Dusty Faucher, member of Friends of the Presumpscot River, said that their concern is not so much for the lake level but for the sufficient flow of water in the river at all times of the year to maintain the migratory fish coming up from the ocean.

“It’s not that we don’t think it’s an important issue,” Faucher said, “but there is only so much one small organization can do.”

According to FERC’s Draft Environmental Assessment introduction, “In the draft EA, Commission staff analyzed the potential environmental effects of re-licensing the project and concludes that issuing a new license for the project, with appropriate environmental measures, would not constitute a major federal action that would significantly affect the quality of the human environment.”

But FOSL President Wheeler called it “an environmental Russian roulette.”

The Eel Weir Dam stands at the outlet of Sebago Lake on the Presumpscot River. The dam, which provides S.D. Warren with hydroelectric power, is up for relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

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