STANDISH — Historically, there have been times when the entire Presumpscot River was blessed by fish passage over all the dams. However, without fail, this passage sooner or later is taken away by powerful special interests in Westbrook. The Presumpscot is cursed by this history.

The town of Standish is now doing its part to help lift this curse. Town councilors there recently decided to intervene in a federal Presumpscot River dam proceeding, an important action that sends a message to governing agencies and citizens that something is fishy with the current deal. Standish now becomes part of a contentious 300-year saga involving everyone from Chief Polin to the residents of towns in the Sebago Lakes region and 19th-century federal officials, all standing up for fish passage on the dams.

The Presumpscot River once was home to a great annual migration of sea-run salmon, shad and alewives to inland headwaters in western Maine. That was first disrupted in the 1730s, when Col. Thomas Westbrook prevented the passage of these valuable food fishes to their spawning grounds by building an impassable dam. The existence and benefits of continuing watershed fish restoration were taken away for brief periods during early Colonial times, the Revolutionary War and the late 1800s. This curse of preventing fish passage strikes again in 2018, as powerful interests work to prevent the great natural wonder and wealth of sea-run fish from gaining access to their full natural inland range.

During the Revolutionary War, hungry settlers living inland from the mills of Westbrook successfully petitioned for the removal of the dams blockading their food fishes, only to have the powers of Westbrook eliminate fish passage by 1800.

After the Civil War, Spencer Baird, the U.S. fish commissioner, became aware that the inability of sea-run fish to migrate to their historic freshwater spawning habitat was harming the coastal and Gulf of Maine fishery. Baird pushed for restoration. Within eight years, fish passage on all Presumpscot dams was easily completed and so successful that Sebago Lake soon became a world-class salmon fishery. The only problem was the army of poachers who speared 20- and 30-pound salmon by the thousands in the tributary rivers of Sebago and Long lakes.

In the early 1900s, Westbrook mills with their pollution and new hydropower dams again blocked the fish. In 2003, thanks to the fish passage requirements of the Clean Water Act, the path to full fish restoration was once again possible. Mill owner Sappi North America fought the state of Maine and the mandates of the Clean Water Act all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court but lost in a unanimous decision in 2006. On the terms set by the high court, Sappi’s 2003 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license for the five lower river dams said that as fish migrate in sufficient numbers upriver, the company is required to successively build fish passage on each of the five dams.

But Sappi, with their Pierce Atwood legal team, was not deterred in their quest to prevent these valuable fish from returning to their former range. They met with the city of Westbrook, Gov. LePage’s Maine Department of Marine Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior and two lower-river groups: Friends of the Presumpscot River and the Conservation Law Foundation.

After a series of secretive negotiations, these groups produced the Saccarappa Agreement, which amends the federal license to eliminate fish passage at the upper Gambo and Dundee dams in Gorham and Windham. Under the 2016 agreement, fish passage around the dams won’t be considered until 2053; even then, Sappi won’t be required to remove the dams. In return, Westbrook receives some land and recreational waterfalls at Saccarappa; Sappi wins the jackpot! Without passage requirements at Gambo and Dundee, these dams become worth millions more should Sappi resell them. The three lower-river dams at Saccarappa Falls, Little Falls and Mallison Falls are relatively worthless for hydropower, and these dams will be removed.

A decade ago, the same agencies and nonprofit groups that are presently parties to the new agreement filed letters with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and FERC fully backing and justifying fish passage on all five dams. Now they support the wording of the current agreement, which says that fish passage “is not required or appropriate” at Gambo or Dundee dams. Will the Presumpscot curse of impassable dams be lifted or not?