The four hydroelectric dams on the lower Kennebec River are enormously important to the central Maine economy. My organization, the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, commissioned a study last fall that reached some striking conclusions: These four dams – located from Waterville to Skowhegan – are responsible, directly or indirectly, for 3,200 jobs and $276.6 million in employee earnings in Kennebec and Somerset counties. They support some of the biggest industry in the region, including the Sappi Somerset Mill in Skowhegan, one of the largest mills in Maine, which would shut down if the Shawmut hydroelectric dam were ever decommissioned and demolished.

The Shawmut dam on the Kennebec River needs to obtain water quality certification from the state of Maine in order to get a new license. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Now, contrary to the concerns of some state agencies and a handful of outside interest groups, it turns out that these dams can coexist with the endangered Atlantic salmon. The choice between one or the other, between economic growth or the return of salmon, is a false one. We can have both.

I know this because the federal agency National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries just spent years carefully examining these four dams, the plans for fish passage at each of them and their effect on Atlantic salmon. It concluded, in a biological opinion issued last week, that the continued operation of these dams will not jeopardize the recovery of the endangered species in the Gulf of Maine. This is good news for the businesses and workers throughout central Maine, who can hardly afford to lose these important cornerstones of our regional economy. I suspect that this will be received as good news for the Mills administration, which has been wrestling with the relicensing of the Shawmut dam for two years now.

In order to get a new license, the Shawmut dam needs to obtain water quality certification from the state of Maine. The state Department of Environmental Protection has twice declined to certify the Shawmut dam in the past two years, and its only concern both times has been Atlantic salmon. First, in 2021, the DEP issued a draft denial of water quality certification for Shawmut because “the applicant has not demonstrated that a fish lift, proposed to be constructed at the project to provide passage through the dam to upstream habitat, … will pass in a safe, timely and effective manner endangered Atlantic salmon.” Then, in 2022, the DEP denied water quality certification because it wanted to wait and see what the federal agencies concluded about these dams and Atlantic salmon. In that denial, the department expressly said it was awaiting the NOAA Fisheries biological opinion.

Now the biological opinion – the precise thing the DEP was waiting for – makes clear that the lower Kennebec River dams, including the Shawmut dam and its proposed fish lift, can coexist with Atlantic salmon. With this opinion in hand, there is no conceivable reason Shawmut should not be relicensed by the state. This is particularly true because Gov. Mills has rightly acknowledged how important it is that the Shawmut dam remain in place.

Throughout her campaign last year, the governor promised that the Shawmut dam would remain viable and continue to support the Sappi mill. With this opinion from NOAA Fisheries, we are pleased that she will be able to make good on that promise. Since thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in employee earnings are at stake, I and central Maine’s business community are asking the governor to respect the opinion of NOAA Fisheries and publicly commit to support the relicensing of the Shawmut dam.

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