The Conservation Law Foundation wants the town of Yarmouth to repair the fish passage at the Bridge Street dam on the Royal River, but environmentalists ultimately set their sights on removing the dam and another on the waterway. Staff photo by Derek Davis

The Conservation Law Foundation is threatening to sue the town of Yarmouth and other parties over a dilapidated fish ladder on the Royal River, the latest fight over dams on Maine’s coastal rivers.

The environmental watchdog has pushed to restore fish passage in other rivers in New England, including the St. Croix and Presumpscot rivers in Maine. Sean Mahoney, vice president and Maine director of the Conservation Law Foundation, said it is time to address the condition of the only two dams on the Royal River, one at Bridge Street and another at East Elm Street. In May, the foundation sent a notice of intent to sue the town and the owner of a Yarmouth mill, claiming the fish passage at the Bridge Street dam has fallen into disrepair in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

The letter demands that the town and the mill owner repair the passage, but Mahoney said he hopes they ultimately remove both dams entirely.

“They are just old dams that have long outlived their purpose, and all they’re doing now is keeping the Royal River from being an even better place for people to recreate on and a better source of really critical keystone fish,” Mahoney said. “Seeing little progress being made on it, we thought the time was right to push a little on this.”

ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS COORDINATE

In June, four local environmental groups – the Royal River Conservation Trust, the Earth Stewardship Team at Yarmouth First Parish Church, the Sebago Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and Maine Rivers – banded together to echo the frustrations about the broken passage.

“There’s been remarkable press coverage this spring of alewives returning up and down the coast of Maine, and remarkable restoration of the Penobscot River,” said Alan Stearns, executive director of the Royal River Conservation Trust. “I think some of the urgency right now in Yarmouth is that Yarmouth and the Royal River and Casco Bay isn’t benefiting from what we know is possible if we were to restore the river. The Royal River deserves the same vibrancy other rivers up and down the coast are experiencing today.”

The Conservation Law Foundation says the fish passage at the Bridge Street dam in the Royal River is littered with rocks, branches and trash, and not conducive to use by fish. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Town Manager Nat Tupper said the Yarmouth Town Council is working with an attorney to determine its next steps. Officials in Yarmouth debated dam removal several years ago, but ultimately decided not to act.

“Just because the council dropped the issue doesn’t mean the issue has gone away,” Tupper said.

The Bridge Street Dam was built in 1894, and the town of Yarmouth has owned it since 1973. The Maine Department of Marine Resources built the fish passage on the dam in 1974 and leased it from the town. But when that agreement expired in 1999, it was not renewed.

In the notice, the Conservation Law Foundation said the passage does not appear to have been actively managed since then. Debris such as rocks, branches and accumulated trash is not being regularly removed. The foundation also said the gate was severely damaged by flooding in 2010, and it is not clear whether it has been repaired. The rate of water flow does not meet the requirements in the exemption.

“The current condition of the fish passage does not facilitate effective fish passage,” the notice states.

ISSUE HAS LONG HISTORY IN YARMOUTH

Yarmouth officials have examined the dams in the past and discussed whether to keep them. In 2009, the Town Council voted to study alternatives for improved fish passage and river restoration.

The conversation had become heated and divisive, Tupper said, and the council decided private organizations should take the lead instead. Local groups have expressed an interest in the dams, Tupper said, but no one has proposed any action or funding plan.

Mahoney said the parties now need to decide whether to fix and maintain the fish passage, or remove the dams.

“That’s the real choice here,” he said. “Because we are confident that the law requires there to be effective and operating fish passage eventually at both of these dams.”

The notice from the foundation also names Allen Jagger, who has owned the nearby Sparhawk Mill since 2014, and Michael Cardente, its property manager. The mill, on the bank of the Royal River next to the dam, was once home to a hydroelectricity generation project.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued an exemption for that project in 1985 that requires the fish passage to be operational, the notice said. The foundation claims that failing to maintain that passage is a violation of that exemption and the Clean Water Act.

Cardente declined to comment on the notice and referred questions to Jagger.

Jagger’s attorney, Juliet Browne, said the hydroelectric project has not operated for three years and her client plans to surrender the exemption “to avoid any confusion.”

She also said Jagger is willing to participate in discussions about the area, but he has no control over the dam or the fish passage because he does not own either property.

“He doesn’t have a view on what should occur there,” Browne said of the dam. “I think that is probably a decision that is better left to the town and state agencies and people with better expertise on fish passage.”

SEEKING WHAT’S ‘BEST FOR THE RIVER’

Jeff Nichols, spokesman for the Department of Marine Resources, said he did not know why the state did not renew its lease at the dam years ago. But he said previous efforts to restore alewife and American shad runs in the Royal River were unsuccessful, and repairs to the passage at the Bridge Street dam are not likely to result in large runs of fish.

“Despite stocking efforts that date back to the ’70s, factors like the cascade between the Bridge Street fishway and the Elm Street fishway, which forms a natural barrier to alewives, and poor juvenile alewife emigration from Sabbathday Lake and Runaround Pond appear to undermine those efforts,” he wrote in an email.

However, the Conservation Law Foundation pointed to a 2017 review at the river by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which concluded that there are “short-term, low-cost alternatives” to fixing the fish passages that could result in small runs of alewives.

DAM REMOVAL BETTER FOR FISH SPECIES

Stearns, of the Royal River Conservation Trust, said any run of fish is better than none.

“Their blasé dismissal of the potential of the Royal River is more than a bit self-serving when they are merely excusing their own lack of effort,” Stearns said of the state.

Stearns said he and other local advocates prefer dam removal because it will benefit more species such as trout. He hoped that Jagger’s decision to surrender his federal exemption will ease the way forward.

“That’s the beginning of the end of the need for litigation,” Stearns said. “It takes one variable out of the equation and thus makes it even easier to sit down with the Town Council and say, ‘Let’s work toward a solution that would be best for the river.’ ”

Mahoney said the foundation can file a lawsuit 60 days from the date of the notice, but has not decided if it will do so.

Instead, he hopes to first gather the stakeholders to talk about options for the river.

“I hope that what’s next is a realistic and practical discussion about what the future of these dams is,” he said.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: megan_e_doyle

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