Fisheries Biologists Involved with Hydropower Renewal Projects in Maine

December 6, 2019 at 5:54 pm

By Assistant Regional Fisheries Biologist Nick Kalejs

For fisheries biologists in the State of Maine, each day brings new and varied tasks. While we spend a lot of time dealing directly with the fish that populate our lakes and streams, some may be surprised to learn that we also spend time providing environmental review for development projects and infrastructure around the state. Lately, much of that review in the Sebago Lake management region has been focused on a common sight across many of our flowing waters: dams.

More specifically, we provide comments on how hydropower dams may affect resident freshwater fish, as part of the licensing process that each hydropower dam must complete. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) requires that hydropower facilities renew their operational licenses about every 30-40 years. As a result, many of the hydropower dams licensed during the environmental movements of the 1970s and 80s are coming up for renewal right about now. In Southern Maine alone, we have roughly 15-20 ongoing hydropower renewal projects, with many more spread across the state.

In most cases, we are looking for a few things as fisheries biologists. First, we ensure that minimum flows either through or around dams are sufficient to provide quality habitat for fish that live in the area. We aim to maintain enough flowing water below a dam to keep most of the width of a river wet and allow fish to move freely. Second, we also look for public access provisions to impoundments and river bypass reaches associated with dams. Flowing rivers are public resources, and are often stocked with fish like brook trout or brown trout, so it is important that anyone can enjoy easy access to these locations. Third, we try to identify gaps in our scientific knowledge at each project site. For example, maybe we don’t know if wild brook trout utilize a tributary below a hydropower dam. Or, perhaps we would like more data on the types of small fish and insects present at a project site. In these and many other cases, we can request that the dam owner perform scientific studies to help us better understand the effects that dam operations can have on natural systems.

The Rumford Falls Hydroelectric Project in Rumford. The relicensing process has just begun on this facility (Nick Kalejs).

Of course, other agencies such as the Maine Department of Marine Resources (MDMR), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) can also comment on hydropower relicensing. Often, our sister agencies provide comments on migratory fish passage, to help protect and restore species such as Atlantic salmon, alewives, American shad, and American eels. By working together with our sister agencies, we hope to maintain strong and diverse fish and wildlife communities across Maine’s river systems for the duration of these new hydropower licenses, and for many future generations.