A worker clears snow from the walking area by the fish ladder on the Presumpscot River in Westbrook last week. In the spring, the ladder will facilitate the migration of sea-run fish for the first time since the dams were built nearly 300 years ago. Chance Viles / American Journal

WESTBROOK — The fish ladder on the Presumpscot River is for the most part complete and river advocates are now gearing up for the return of migrating sea-run fish for the first time in hundreds of years.

“It’s a different river now. It’s the river it was always supposed to be but wasn’t,” said Michael Shaughnessy, Friends of the Presumpscot River president and city councilor.

Work at Saccarappa Falls to remove the Sappi paper mill dams and build the fish ladder began in earnest last year after more than 20 years of discussions, debates and federal rulings.

The fish ladder was completed over the last few weeks with only some minor work on the gates remaining, Sappi engineer Barry Stemm said Monday.

Work upstream from the falls is pending “relative to adjustments due to the drawdown of the water level,” Shaughnessy said.

“This would include boat launches, docks and, importantly, culverts that are now perched,” he said. “These may be a bit off due to the effects and will be studied and reported on.”

Friends of the Presumpscot plan to formally “acknowledge and welcome the spring runs of fish passing Saccarappa, an event that has not happened for hundreds of years due to the dams,” Shaughnessy said.

Sappi plans to have a facility on the ladder to count the fish returning to spawn upriver operational by 2024. The count will help determine fish passage needs at other dams on the river.

Shaughnessy said he is in the early stages of developing educational opportunities around the ladder and the river.

“In our relationship to the Abenaki people, that was their fishing ground,” he said. “They had a village nearby, it was a big spot to them and at one point in time, it was an agreed dividing line between indigenous lands up the river and colonial lands down the river in the early 1700s. We are talking now about ways this can be really utilized to honor that past and those people that called this their home.”

Talks about 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. – as part of water quality certifications required for federal relicensing.

We expect most fish to come through the ladder, less will go up the other side,” Shaugnessy said.

After years of negotiations, the city of Westbrook and Sappi came to an agreement that was approved by federal regulators in April 2019. Work to remove the headwalls of the dam began that July.

A worker clears a walkway on the fish passage last week. The ladder is in clear view of Sacarappa Park. Chance Viles / American Journal

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