A bird soars above a channel at Saccarappa Falls that started flowing again last week after a headwall farther up the Presumpcot River was demolished. “Wildlife is really beginning to return to the river,” Michael Shaughnessy said. “We can expect even more when (the dam removal project) wraps up and fish migrations begin.” Chance Viles / American Journal

WESTBROOK — The Presumpscot River now has two channels flowing at Saccarappa Falls and the fish ladders are nearly complete.

Friends of the Presumpscot River President Michael Shaughnessy overlooks the recent river work. Chance Viles / American Journal

“The river flow is now more natural than it has been in hundreds of years,” said Michael Shaughnessy, at-large city councilor and president of river advocate group Friends of the Presumpscot River.

Sappi has not set a date to open and test the fish ladders that are part of its dam removal project on the river, but expects to have the entire project wrapped up next spring, with the fishways operating on May 1.

“The Saccarappa Dam Removal and Fishway Project is proceeding along nicely,” Sappi Engineering Director Barry Stemm said. “Most of the riverbed ledge sculpting is complete, and the fishway structure is about 75% complete.  The project is ahead of schedule and most of the in-river work will be complete by late fall or early winter.”

Shaughnessy credited the “great people behind this project” for what he says will be “essentially a natural spot in the heart of our urban area.”

He said he looks forward to the public use of the island between the river the older and new channels of water.

“The exciting thing is that island is city land. I am looking at ways to connect it to our paths, or River Walk, and make it a public park,” he said. “That would be the most unique thing, people could take sandwiches out to the island, but that is in the future.”

Talks of removing the dam for the benefit of wildlife began over 20 years ago, but was reinforced in 2006 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s ability to require fish passage and minimum water flow standards around the Presumpscot River dams,  then owned by S.D. Warren Co. The DEP requirements were part of water quality certifications required for federal relicensing.

After years of negotiations, the city of Westbrook and Sappi, the current owners, agreed to a plan to remove the dam. That plan was approved by federal regulators April 2019, who have regularly been visiting the project site throughout the year.

The fish ladder is to the left of the new channel. Chance Viles / American Journal

This channel next to the old mill won’t have a manmade fish ladder, but the rocks will provide a good migratory area for fish, Michael Shaughnessy said, and will likely be a feeding ground for birds of prey and other wildlife. Chance Viles / American Journal

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