The Dam That Wouldn't Leave
There's something about the Fort Halifax Dam, on the Sebasticook River in Winslow, that's not quite right. Maybe it's the shape - the dam is a shallow V pointing upstream, the only dam of that design in Maine. Maybe it's the lack of a lake behind the twenty-nine-foot-tall concrete structure - the impoundment is long and narrow and decidedly riverish.
Maybe it's the fact that it exists at all.
It's not supposed to. The dam's owner, FPL Energy, has been trying to tear the dam down since 2001. This summer it might finally succeed, if opponents fail in the latest of a long line of unsuccessful appeals to the plan.
Since the removal of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Augusta in 1999, Fort Halifax Dam has been the last barrier for sea-run salmon, shad, alewives, and other species to the Sebasticook watershed, which stretches across a huge swath of central Maine from Winslow to Dexter and Corinna. The dam's original owner, Central Maine Power, agreed in 1998 to install a fish passage or remove the structure by May 1, 2003. The current owner, FPL Energy, inherited the contract when it bought all of CMP's generation facilities in Maine in late 1998.
FPL ran the numbers and discovered that the relatively paltry 1.8 megawatts of electricity the dam produced each year weren't worth the three million to four million dollars that a fish passage would cost. For the past seven years it has been fighting to demolish the dam, opposed by a tiny but determined group of waterfront residents who want to preserve the structure and, more importantly, the impoundment behind it.
In March the Winslow Planning Board gave what should have been the final approval needed to remove the dam, ending a series of courtroom battles and regulatory appeals that reached all the way to the Maine and United States Supreme courts. But in mid-April, in a last-ditch effort, a tiny group of residents appealed the decision to the town's Zoning Board of Appeals.
Many of the hydro dams built in the nineteenth century to provide mechanical energy to the state's factories and mills were retrofitted in the early 1900s with power generation turbines. But Fort Halifax Dam was built in 1908 as one of the first purely hydroelectric installations in Maine. In those days Winslow and its larger neighbor across the Kennebec, Waterville, were bustling mill towns, and the dam powered the local electric trolley system.
The dam became part of Central Maine Power and operated quietly throughout most of the twentieth century. By the 1990s, efforts to clean up and restore the Kennebec after centuries of pollution led to plans to remove the Edwards Dam, which would open up seventeen miles of the river to sea-run fish species. The Kennebec Coalition, a group of five environmental and conservation groups, spearheaded the campaign and helped draft the agreement that called for creating additional fish passages at dams farther up the Kennebec and its major tributaries, including the Sebasticook. All the dams above Fort Halifax have fish passages.
"From the beginning, we weren't asking that [Fort Halifax] Dam be knocked down," explains Daniel W. Marra, board president for the Kennebec Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited, a member of the Kennebec Coalition. "All we wanted was an effective fish passage. It was up to FPL Energy to decide how to do that. If FPL had said it was going ahead with a fishway or something similar, we would have been fine with that."
"The dam produces just 1.5 to 1.8 megawatts of the 3,000 megawatts of electricity generated in Maine in all," explains F. Allen Wiley, FPL's point man in Maine. "It's a very small part of the whole." The wholesale price of power right now is about fifty-five to sixty dollars a megawatt hour, or 5.5 to six cents a kilowatt hour, he adds.
"For a fish lift we estimated the cost at about three million to four million dollars," Wiley notes. "For a hydroelectric facility of this size, that's just not an economical number." FPL owns twenty-four other hydroelectric facilities in Maine, Wiley says. Fort Halifax is by far the smallest.
"In June 2001 we and other property owners above the dam received a letter from the Kennebec Coalition folks asking us to attend a meeting on the future of the Sebasticook River," recalls Kenneth C. Fletcher. "That's where we learned of the possibility of the dam being removed. It came completely out of the blue."
Fletcher, a pulp and paper consultant who owns a home on the south side of the impoundment above the dam, immediately began organizing opposition to the proposal. He formed Save Our Sebasticook (SOS) and began visiting state officials and agencies to protest the dam's removal. In 2002 he ran for and won a seat in the Maine House of Representatives and then campaigned for appointments to the Marine Resources and Utilities and Energy committees, giving him front-row access to legislative action concerning the dam. He even became a member of the Winslow Planning Board, although he recused himself from deliberations concerning the dam.
Today Fletcher blandly denies that his election to the House - he's now serving his third term - was sparked by the dam issue, but he admits that he originally ran after feeling mistreated by state officials who dismissed his concerns. "It didn't make sense to us," he insists. "The dam makes renewable energy, it offers recreation resources, and it has an economic impact on the community. But no one seemed concerned about it except the people in Winslow."
Fletcher waxes rhapsodic over the advantages of living on the lake-like impoundment versus a rushing river. In the winter the waterway freezes into a popular snowmobile route, and in the summer it's an almost private playground for waterfront residents. (The only public landing is a tiny launching point tucked behind the local supermarket.) Draining it will return the river to its original bed, twenty-four vertical feet below the current level.
As much as Fletcher talks about how the Winslow community has rallied behind SOS - two petitions at polling places garnered 1,200 to 1,400 supportive signatures, he says - Town Manager Michael Heavener paints a slightly different picture of the controversy. Winslow today is a rather shop-worn bedroom community of about 7,743 people, its glory days long in the past. Civic pride now revolves mostly around the local high-school sports teams. The Winslow Black Raiders football team has eleven state championships.
"Most folks here work in Waterville or Augusta," says Heavener, who arrived as the town's police chief in 2000 and became manager in 2006. "Until recently, the dam was pretty much a non-issue. The majority of the folks here don't see what the problem is. Their biggest concern is what the costs to the town might be."
Legal fees for the multiple hearings and meetings about the dam have run into tens of thousands of dollars, Heavener notes. "The planning board alone had ten meetings last year concerning the dam, and the town attorney attended all of them at a cost of $155 an hour," he says. "We've spent two thousand dollars just on the sewer line issue," a reference to arguments over how to deal with a sewer pipe that runs under the impoundment.
If the town's legal bills have been high, those for Fletcher and SOS have been even higher, although Fletcher declines to say how much. "Preti Flaherty [one of Maine's top law firms] has been very understanding," he allows. "We owe them a lot of money." The group's lead attorney has been Anthony Buxton, arguably the foremost utility lawyer in the state - and an occasional witness before the legislature's Utilities and Energy Committee.
FPL's Wiley also declines to give exact figures for his company's legal costs, although he describes them as "not insignificant. We've gone through five different appeals with Mr. Fletcher and SOS."
Fletcher and his supporters have shown real persistence in appealing and questioning every decision concerning the demolition, to the point of appealing Federal Energy Regulatory Commission decisions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. "Some of the appeals have been on pretty loose grounds," offers Marra, an attorney in Waterville, "to the point where the last time an appeal was filed in state court the Kennebec Coalition asked for sanctions," which the court declined to award even as it rejected SOS's appeal.
Calling the still water behind the dam a lake would be a misnomer. Even Fletcher refers to it as an impoundment. Though it's more than five miles long, the water body covers only 417 acres and is narrow enough in many places to throw a rock across. Fletcher says there is little motorboat traffic, although he has seen the occasional water skier.
"Mostly we see people in canoes, kayaks, small boats," he says. He praises the fishing for black bass, largemouth bass, and black crappie, all warm-water species. And efforts to reintroduce alewives to the watershed in the past six years, first by trucking them past the dam and then last year using a fish pump to lift them over the dam, have been spectacularly successful - and bode well for further success after the dam is removed. Atlantic salmon and shad have returned to the Kennebec as far up as Waterville, and the first five miles of a dam-free Sebasticook are considered prime shad territory.
"I don't think anyone is saying that the Sebasticook is a major salmon habitat, at least not yet," Marra allows, "but alewives are an important forage fish in fresh water. Plus there's new research that says Gulf of Maine fish stocks also depend on them."
At low water in the summer, and again in the fall when Lake Sebasticook in Newport is flushed, the impoundment suffers serious algae blooms. Dana Murch, the dam expert at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, says that water quality was a concern when the dam was last relicensed. "If the dam were to stay, FPL would have had to do something to improve the situation," he says.
Fletcher worries about pollutants from the tanneries and woolen mills that once operated upstream and are now trapped in river sediments being disturbed. He notes that there are two active bald eagle nests on the impoundment. The dropping water level will expose an additional 266 acres of land that he feels could be subject to erosion.
Marra notes that those objections were also heard during the debate over the Edwards Dam removal. All of them proved groundless. Perhaps of more concern is the possibility of land along the shore collapsing toward the river as water levels drop. Several homes on Dallaire Street on the north side just above the dam sit within a few feet of the edge of a steep embankment above the impoundment. FPL has offered to pay costs for nervous residents to move out during the drawdown.
"We do need to do something more to protect the homes on the embankment, whether its riprap or a retaining wall or whatever would minimize the risk," Fletcher maintains.
The frontage along the Sebasticook beyond the area around the dam itself is surprisingly undeveloped, but so far there has been no indication of any effort to protect it. "You can almost imagine this is what it looked like centuries ago in places," Fletcher says.
Despite the continued appeals, these days even Fletcher seems resigned to the dam's final fate. "It looks like FPL is going to take it out," he says. "Life will go on. We'll watch the grass grow and the river run."