An agreement has been reached to extend Sappi Fine Paper’s deadline for establishing fish passage at Saccarappa Falls in Westbrook by one year.

The new deadline, set by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is now May 2018. By that time, Sappi is expected to complete the engineering, design and construction on the dam removal and fish passage project.

The Saccarappa project, like the Cumberland Mills fish ladder project before it, has been touted by city officials and environmental groups as beneficial to Westbrook – a potential tourist attraction for both wildlife enthusiasts, kayakers, and other recreational opportunites.

Sappi is surrendering its license to operate the hydroelectric dams at the site, after previously agreeing to work with environmental organizations and other governmental agencies to remove the dams and create “nature-like” fish passage at the falls.

The company applied for the extension this spring after it became clear that negotiations about the design would not leave Sappi with enough time to complete the fish passage construction.

Since last year, engineers and lawyers working for Sappi, multiple government agencies and environmental organizations such as the Friends of the Presumpscot River have been in a back-in-forth about Sappi’s proposed design for fish passage at the site.

John Williams, a Sappi spokesman, confirmed the extension this week, saying that “on June 17, FERC issued an order extending the Saccarappa fish passage deadline by one year, to May 2018.”

In response to rumors that the extention could be for longer, he said, “There is no pending request to extend the deadline beyond May 2018.”

Due to the negotiations, Sappi first requested that the commission extend the date for filing “comments, motions to intervene, and protests” on its dam removal license until July 1 of this year, giving the parties more time to come to an agreement.

Williams said Tuesday that FERC has now also extended that date to Oct. 1.

However, even as the new deadline is set, the sides are still at odds over the design, and how to proceed.

According to a document submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by the Conservation Law Foundation and the Friends of the Presumpscot River, the organizations are not in support of extending the date for filing comments on the dam removal license to Oct. 1, stating that Sappi’s new submission departs “significantly from what is proposed in its application.” It says this includes an “alternative fish passage design from the one contained in the application, a different timeline for decommissioning and construction of fish passage, and different post-decommissioning obligations on (Sappi).”

Ever since two differing designs for fish passage were created, the dispute between the parties centers on Sappi’s so-called “western channel” design option, as opposed to the two-channel option that is supported by the Friends of the Presumpscot River and the Conservation Law Foundation.

Dozens of people packed the Westbrook City Council chambers last August for a public meeting on the two proposed design options for Saccarappa Falls. Each option garnered passionate support, including a group of kayakers who showed up with dozens of kayaks, spelling out “Rec & Fish.”

By all accounts, the Saccarappa site is a complicated one. The site has lower and upper falls, each with a section of dam. Once fish, such as alewife, shad and herring, make it up the lower falls, there are two channels, called east and west. The east channel flows past the Dana Warp Mill side, while the west begins just under the boardwalk of Saccarappa Park.

One plan, dubbed the two-channel, would open both channels to fish passage. The other plan, the western channel, would open the west channel to fish, while keeping the east channel separate – potentially allowing recreational options for paddlers.

Ron Kreisman, an attorney working on behalf of Friends of the Presumpscot River, also confirmed the extension this week. He said the deadline extension will “allow the Conservation Law Foundation, Friends of the Presumpscot River and federal and state resource agencies additional time to explore whether they can reach agreement on a design for fish passage at Saccarappa Falls that the Conservation Law Foundation and Friends believe will restore sea-run fish to Westbrook and upriver.”

Kreisman said the groups are in negotiations and have “agreed with Sappi to not speak publicly about ideas that are being discussed and not being discussed to reach an agreement.”

The Friends of the Presumpscot River and the Conservation Law Foundation have advocated for the two-channel design, arguing that fish passage comes first, and recreational amenities can follow. Sappi and those hoping for recreational amenities are aiming for something like the Western channel design, which would leave one channel open for paddlers.

Michael Shaughnessy, the board president of Friends of the Presumpscot River, said Wednesday that the group has worked hard over the years to restore the Presumpscot and its fishery.

“We want fish passage to be safe, timely and effective,” he said. “The Presumpscot is potentially on the verge of a major fishery restoration. Having fish leaping at Saccarappa, fly-fishing from its banks and eagles and osprey gliding above will be a profound benefit to the image and desirability of downtown Westbrook.”

The groups have been patient to get what they believe is the best solution. The original deadline for fish passage at Saccarappa Falls was May 2015.

Removal of Saccarappa Falls’ hydroelectric dams, shown here from above, and establishment of natural fish passage will be delayed again – to May of 2018.

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