WESTBROOK — This winter the world saw the miracle of the ice disk, which revolved in a slow, subtle and perfectly circular motion in the Presumpscot River basin, just below the falls at Saccarappa. A few months earlier, another miracle occurred – this one underwater and hidden from view.

In May 2018, over 52,000 river herring made their way through the fish ladder at Cumberland Mills and into a part of the river that had not seen those numbers of native fish in more than a century.

Now, after six years of negotiations, and 16 years since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued licenses ordering fish passage for several Presumpscot River dams, the required surrender orders for the Saccarappa hydro project – just upstream from the Cumberland Mills fish ladder in Westbrook – have been issued. These orders, from FERC and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, will mean the removal of the Saccarappa dams and the construction of fish passage for sea-run fish by Sappi North America at this critical and complex site.

These agency orders constitute a major milestone in the restoration of the Presumpscot River and are a result of very hard work and long negotiations between Sappi North America as the owner of hydropower project, Friends of the Presumpscot River and the Conservation Law Foundation and the city of Westbrook, as well as the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose engagement and expertise was critical. Since fish passage on the upstream dams were dependent on the numbers that passed at Saccarappa, it was of critical importance that fish passage designs at this heavily altered and complex site were done well.

The DEP and FERC orders require dam removal and fish passage to be complete and operational for the May 2021 upstream fish runs from the ocean. A full 5 miles – one-fifth of the river’s habitat – will be reopened for spawning anadromous fish; spawning habitat that is capable of producing hundreds of thousands of alewife and blueback herring, tens of thousands of American shad, and even a small population of endangered Atlantic salmon. Based on the experience of other rivers where dams have been removed, populations of eagles, osprey, heron and other wildlife will return along with the fish. Also, these migrating fish will supply forge food and nutrients to a help support the fishery of the Casco Bay and beyond.

These anadromous fish were critical to the survival of the Abenaki who lived along the river. But from the mid 1700s, the massive fish runs met their demise because of the dams. It was in the early 18th century that efforts by the Wabanaki people to have fish passage constructed at the dams were violently suppressed and the genocidal effects allowed to continue. This history began with the first logging dams, then mill dams, then hydro installed at the beginning of the 1900s. The runs were being destroyed certainly long before Sappi and even S.D. Warren took ownership. It has been the efforts and advocacy of the Friends and their allies and fiscal supporters, and in no small measure the very substantial investments by Sappi, that make this revival possible.

Westbrook, the only municipality that has the river running through its heart, stands to gain much. There is the potential to continue the river walk loop, which will hug the river downtown. Uniquely, the city will gain Saccarappa Island, which is situated in the shadow of Dana Warp and, once the dams are removed, can be converted into a park surrounded by the cascades of the upper falls.

Presumpscot is a Wabanaki name, meaning “river of many falls.” With 12 sets of substantial falls along a short course of 25 miles it was a river as filled with wildness and beauty as it was with fish. This FERC decision, and an earlier similar decision by the Maine DEP, are the next steps in the restoration of the beauty, wonder and vibrancy of this river. It has been a long journey; there is much more to go, and through strong partnerships, shared vision, persistence and cooperation, the river will rise anew.

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