A line of thunderstorms rolled through the mountains of western Maine on July 7, a natural event in this wet summer of 2023. What happened next, however, was anything but natural and resulted in a major fish kill on one of Maine’s most revered fisheries – the West Branch of the Penobscot River. This event also provided the latest example of Canada-based Brookfield Renewable Partners’ careless disregard for the many Maine dams it owns and rivers it controls and why Mainers who care about our environment should be concerned as Brookfield seeks to renew its 30- to 50-year federal licenses to operate its dams. It must be made clear that a license to operate dams is not a license to kill.

Around 7 p.m. July 7, lighting knocked out McKay Station, the powerhouse serving Brookfield’s Ripogenus Dam on the West Branch. With the unstaffed station inoperable, Brookfield’s own SafeWaters website showed waterflows below Ripogenus collapsing to 100 cubic feet per second, a fraction of the normal 3,000 to 1,800 cfs range.

Eyewitness accounts filled in the story.

Photos taken by area residents showed Big Eddy, a well-known fishing pool downriver, dropping to the lowest levels that some observers had ever seen.

Around 10:15 p.m., a couple driving crossing Telos Bridge downstream of the dam realized that “the water was extremely low.” They stopped their car and got out to investigate and – even in the dark – found stranded fish and macroinvertebrates.

The next morning, a Maine Guide launching his raft near McKay Station counted some 10 dead landlocked salmon.


Commenting on the drying up of the West Branch on July 7, retired fisheries biologist Ed Spear, who worked for Great Northern Paper when it ran Ripogenus, said: “Essentially, the entire West Branch 2023 salmon year class was eliminated. … Recently emerged alevin (larval salmon) are extremely vulnerable to rapid flow change and the initial dewatering and subsequent flooding of the riverbed.”

In response to complaints about low flows from the fisheries conservation group Trout Unlimited, Spear and others, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which licenses and regulates the nation’s hydroelectric dams including Ripogenus, is now investigating the July 7 incident.

Brookfield acknowledges that a five-hour “outage event” occurred July 7 but maintains that flows only fell to 610 cfs. Trout Unlimited questions that account and notes that it is impossible to determine because McKay Station was unstaffed, and Brookfield’s technicians are based more than an hour away, in Millinocket. Brookfield has not revealed when technicians arrived but did say that “responding technicians did not conduct any river surveys for environmental effects.”

Neither did Brookfield explain why it did not release water through other dam gates, as has been done in the past.

The July incident is the most recent in a series of events affecting the West Branch.

During the summers of 2020 and 2021, Ripogenus-Chesuncook Lake was not filled, and the drawdowns exceeded 20 feet, making boat launches unusable, navigation of lake hazardous to impossible and shoreline travel treacherous with users having to carry boats and gear over hundreds of feet of exposed, unstable rock to the water. Loon nesting was severely affected as well.

FERC, which was also investigating other complaints of low flows, shifted its focus to outages in their most recent compliance directive to Brookfield: “… we are requesting that you consult with the FWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), Maine DIFW (Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife), Maine DEP (Department of Environmental Protection), and Maine LURC (sic) (Land Use Planning Commission) to identify measures aimed at reducing the instances of fish and macroinvertebrate strandings downstream of McKay Station during downramping events, such as unit outages, until the current relicensing process is concluded.”

Brookfield operates most of the dams on Maine’s major watersheds: the Penobscot, Kennebec, Androscoggin and Saco. As such, Brookfield’s dams have profound effect on the aquatic habitat, fisheries, recreation and aesthetics of Maine’s greatest public resources. Brookfield must look beyond its bottom line and exercise the stewardship needed to correct problems that persist from times when the needs of mills overshadowed environmental concerns.

The knowledge, technology and experience to prevent these man-made disasters is well-known. The FERC directive is a step in the right direction – corporate will from Brookfield needs to catch up.

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