Channels and pools form where a dam once stood on the Presumpscot in Westbrook. In addition to traveling the new fish ladder, which is downriver from this spot, fish will also make their way upstream using this side of the river. Chance Viles / American Journal

The gates on the new fish ladder at Saccarappa Falls have been powered up and residents can expect to see them used for upstream fish passage starting in early June.

“All that remains is to test the fishway gates, which is planned for mid-April, and then place the fishway in service,” said Sappi Engineering Manager Barry Stemm.

The level of the river has been lowered, uncovering, among other things, this boat that was once submerged. Chance Viles / American Journal

The fish ladder, or fishway, will be in operation from May 1 to July 15 each year, Stemm said, which coincides with the time frame in which fish swim upstream on the Presumpscot River.

Most of the fish returning to the river this season, said Friends of the Presumpscot River President Michael Shaughnessy, will migrate through the western channel, created when Sappi removed that dam as part of an agreement for federal licensing around conservation. Since the removal of the two Saccarappa Falls dams, there is now a natural channel as well as another with the fish ladder.

The fish ladder allows fish that may not be strong enough to swim through natural channels with obstacles and rapids created by the dams to migrate upstream to spawn,

Talks about removing the Westbrook dams 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 as part of water quality certifications required for federal relicensing. The dams, once owned by S.D. Warren, were owned by Sappi, which was responsible for their removal and the fish ladder construction.

Shaughnessy said the fish heading in from the ocean to spawn upriver will mostly be blueback herring, shad and alewives. The fish born upriver then will migrate to the ocean, before returning to the Presumpscot to lay their own eggs.

“It won’t look like the Mill Brook with a really concentrated group up one set of falls,” he said, referring to dense migration visible on the small Westbrook brook. “They have a wide area to get up, but you will see some coming up.” 

Ducks and even heron have been frequenting the banks of Saccarappa Falls in downtown Westbrook, now more wildlife friendly since the dams have been removed. Chance Viles / American Journal

With the fish coming back, he said, people should also keep their eyes out for birds of prey and other animals already returning to the banks of the river, even right in the heart of downtown.

“It will be really exciting,” Shaughnessy said.

Sappi, meanwhile, has applied to create a new corporation to oversee its assets on the river, a move that is concerning to the Friends of the Presumpscot River. If Sappi sold that corporation, it could remove any financial accountability, said Friends President Michael Shaughnessy, a Westbrook city councilor.

Sappi has applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to create Presumpscot Hydro, Shaughnessy said.

Manager of Corporate Communications Olga Karagiannis said the company wants to transfer the assets.

“Sappi has applied to transfer its hydro-electric assets to Presumpscot Hydro LLC in connection with exploring the sale of its five hydroelectric projects on the Presumpscot River in order to focus on its core business and unlock value for shareholders,” Karagiannis said.

Friends of the Presumpscot River has intervened in the application process “to ensure that this transfer goes forward only in a way that ensures adequate financial resources will be available for Presumpscot Hydro to fulfill the requirements of the licenses,” Shaughnessy said.

“It is critical to FOPR that there is no possibility to undermine the progress that has been made for the continued restoration of the river. Embodied in the license are the requirements for fish passage at upriver dams and the remaining obligations and responsibilities at Saccarappa,” Shaughnessy said.

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