Water flows over the Lower Barker Mill Dam on the Little Androscoggin River in Auburn on Friday. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUBURN — City officials are calling a relicensing agreement at the Lower Barker Mill Dam a “big win” for recreation — one that could lead to urban kayaking events downtown.

According to a news release Friday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued the new license April 15 after a six-year negotiation among city, federal and state agencies, several environmental organizations and dam owner KEI Power.

As part of the relicensing, KEI Power proposed several upgrades to river recreation in the area of the dam on the Little Androscoggin River, including providing up to five annual flow releases to enhance whitewater boating opportunities.

According to the memo, the releases would allow for up to five hours each of flows of up to 500 cubic feet per second. The current minimum flow at the dam is 20 cubic feet per second.

“This will enhance whitewater boating opportunities and open the door for new, creative, adventure-based city events,” the release said.

Two years ago, a flow study report was conducted on the section of river as part of the relicensing process, with several kayakers testing increased flows.

Eric Cousens, deputy director of Economic and Community Development, said during a City Council workshop Monday that the city was “surprised” to get controlled releases as part of the relicensing, and that it could lead to several “urban kayak run” events.

Ryan Galway takes part in a whitewater flow study on the Little Androscoggin River in May 2018. Sun Journal file photo

“The recreation potential this brings to Auburn is the ‘big win,'” he said in Friday’s news release. “Auburn’s Comprehensive Plan and Strategic Plan place high priority on river access and recreation as a way to attract new residents and visitors and improve the overall quality of life for those who call Auburn home.”

While officials say they are excited by the potential for river recreation in a downtown setting, the relicensing also bodes well for fish.

The agreement stipulates the minimum flows at the dam will increase from 20 cubic feet per second to 113, providing suitable flows for resident and migrating fish, and allowing for recreational opportunities during the summer months.

It also creates timetables for providing downstream and upstream fish passage.

According to Cousens, downstream fish passage improvements and upstream eel passage are expected by the summer of 2021, with upstream salmon and alewife passage expected by 2024.

“This is a great improvement, especially for migrating alewives from Taylor Pond,” he said. “Although it goes unnoticed by most, there are a few rainy nights in June that eels, sometimes in large numbers, make their way over and around the urban dam from the Sargasso Sea to return to their parents’ home rivers and lakes until they are ready to spawn and make the trip back to their birthplace.”

City Councilor Katie Boss said Friday that she’s “grateful to our dedicated staff for their sustained effort on this project. The benefits of this new license fit firmly with Auburn’s commitment to natural resource protection and enjoying our unique outdoor spaces for recreation.”

According to the agreement, other improvements may also be made to the informal hand-carry boat launch and foot trail leading to the bypassed reach, as well as added signs for both, a more clear parking area near the gatehouse, and regular maintenance of the facilities.

Another update would use real-time flow data obtained from the U.S. Geological Survey’s upstream South Paris gate, and publish the calculated flows to a public website “to help inform recreation users of current conditions for boating and fishing in the bypassed reach.”

Organizations in on the negotiations included the Androscoggin Land Trust, National Park Service, Bates College, Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, American Whitewater, Trout Unlimited, and Atlantic Salmon Federation.

Dana Little, board president of the Androscoggin Land Trust, said, “The city’s ability to secure these recreational enhancements through the licensing process is a testament to the exceptional competency of Auburn’s city staff and the dedication of many community partners.”

The license requires KEI Power to develop a recreation plan that includes conceptual drawings and descriptions of the proposed improvements; a schedule for maintaining the section of Barker Mill Trail near the dam; a schedule for providing flow data and a provision to monitor and report recreational use in the project area.

“In the months to come, city staff will also start building and promoting exciting new events around the water releases,” the news release said.

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