Dams divide, questions deepen
KENNEBUNK — As Stephen Bragdon of Scarborough sat in a shady spot beneath the Route 1 bridge over the Mousam River Friday and cast a line into the waters below, he contemplated the Kesslen Dam, located barely a stone's throw from his perch.
“It’s hard to know what to do,” he said, referring to an ongoing debate over the future of the Kesslen and its upstream sisters, the Twine Mill and Dane Perkins dams. All three structures are owned and operated by the Kennebunk Light and Power District (KL&P), and are due for federal relicensing in 2022. However, with a March 2017 deadline for a decision looming, district trustees have not yet decided if they will pursue that option, or else remove one or more of the dams.
On May 28, three groups which favor removal — the Mousam and Kennebunk Rivers Alliance, the Sierra Club Climate Action Team, and Maine Rivers — will co-sponsor a public forum at which they say they will share “factual information and answers to some of the questions” surrounding the dams. Those questions, the groups say, were not adequately addressed at a March 31 public presentation given by KL&P. At that meeting, district officials declined to delve into the future of the dams, other than to unveil results of a study into what the Mousam might look like if the dams weren’t there.
That’s a future the three environmental groups are fighting for. However, late last week U.S Sen. Angus King threw a new wrench into the works.
A proponent of renewable energy, King has submitted a bill to reduce the time (as much as five years) and cost (upwards of $1.3 million) it will take to renew federal licensing of the dams with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
According to King, his bill, entitled the Small Hydropower Dependable Regulatory Order (or, HyDRO) Act of 2015, would force FERC "to render a decision on a license application within 180 days with a rebuttable presumption that the license will be issued."
“Any permitting process that takes seven to 10 years and costs $50 to $100 million isn’t a permitting program, it’s an annuity for lawyers and consultants,” King said on Tuesday, during a meeting of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Having grown up in Kennebunk, Bragdon is familiar with the Kesslen Dam, built more than a century ago to power an adjacent shoe factory.
KL&P was founded as a municipal electric company in 1893 in order to help the struggling mill by buying excess power, using it to provide streetlights in town. KL&P became an independent entity in 1951 and converted the dams from wood and timber to concrete in 1954. By that time the company was providing electricity to homes and businesses in most of Kennebunk, as well as to portions of Arundel, Lyman and Wells.
When Maine deregulated the electric utilities in 2000, it forced giants like Central Maine Power to become carriers only and divest themselves of all power-generating capabilities. But small “public power systems” like KL&P, which has just 6,599 customers, were allowed to continue making power.
Still, most of what the company does is transmit power, buying it on the market and transmitting it to local customers. According to KL&P’s outgoing general manager, Sharon Staz, the three district dams account for between 1.3 and 5 percent of all power used by its customers.
And that’s were the problem begins.
KL&P’s license to operate the dams, issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), expires in 2022. But the relicensing process is so onerous, the district must inform FERC by March 2017 of its intentions, either to relicense the dams, or tear them down.
“The fact that we have to file an intent to renew our license a full five years before it expires shows you that they (FERC) recognizes that its process is that complicated,” Staz said. “The relicensing process for an operation as small as ours is as difficult and as onerous and as expensive as if we were the Hoover Dam.”
According to Staz, relicensing the three dams could cost KL&P “anywhere from $850,00 to $1.3 million” — a price tag that would have to be passed along to customers.
And that’s where the matter sits at the moment, as KL&P’s five-member board of trustees struggles with the question of cost versus benefit. According to Staz, the option of selling the dams now appears to be “off the table.” Of four companies that kicked the proverbial tires on the dams last fall, one declined to submit an offer, while “the other three never got back to us,” Staz said.
That means the dams will have to be relicensed or torn down. Either option means a likely hit for KL&P ratepayers. After all, the district can’t just dynamite the dams and walk away.
“It’s a difficult decision,” allowed Bragdon, as he reeled in his line and made another toss. “It’s a tough call for me. For the fish, I’m in full agreement with removing every one of them (the dams). I fish here for striped bass. Without the dams, the natural process would take effect and they, and the eels and the smelt would run much farther up than they do now. But do I want to see somebody’s property values crumble overnight as a result in a change in the river flow? Not really.”
Bragdon’s father, Charles Bragdon of Wells, who lived in Kennebunk for 22 years, gave a similar shrug, while casting his line even closer to the dam, as hundreds of gallons per minute topped the Kesslen and dropped in the pool at his feet.
“You’ve got sea-run fish here that would run this river if the dams were out,” he said. “So, yeah, I’d be in favor of taking them out, unless it would drastically increase Kennebunk Light and Powers’ rates. That would have to be a consideration. It’s just really hard to know what to do.”
That uncertainty was echoed at the March 31 public meeting. As evidence of local interest in the dam decision, more than 150 people packed town hall chambers of the board of selectmen, to hear a presentation from the district’s new general manager, Todd Shea, who, until a month before, had been the town manager of Arundel.
At that forum, Pat McIlvaine of engineering firm Wright Pierce showed slides projecting how the Mousam might look if KLP chooses not to pursue relicensing and removes the dams.
At the Kesselen Dam, the water level would fall from 14 feet deep to 1.2 feet. The river is currently 128 feet wide at that juncture, but with the dam gone, the Mousam’s width would shrink to 40 feet, she said.
But beyond that, neither Shea, Staz or Mcllvaine could give any answers to numerous questions, while KL&P trustees similarly sat on their hands, promising only a full public process that would be made public, they said, as soon as the process allowed.
Wright Pierce on Feb. 20 also completed a new round of safety inspections of the dams. However, Shea has refused to release the results of that work.
“The Dam Safety Surveillance Monitoring reports are considered critical energy infrastructure information and, as confi- dential information, the district has not released that information to the public,” Shea said last week when denying a Freedom of Access Act request submitted by the Post.
For many, including sponsors of the May 28 forum, it's the lingering doubt from unanswered deletions that nag. Bill Grabin, a member of the Mousum and Kennebunk Rivers Alliance, admits that restoring the Mousam to pristine condition, sans dams, is his group's ultimate goal. However, the alliance is trying hard, he said Friday, to engage in dialogue with KL&P trustees and to not be confrontational. Still, the group is eager to confirm the current health of the Mousam, as well as to know the full benefit to KL&P of its dams, how fish runs will be allowed if the dams remain, what impact removal of the dams will have on habitats and ecosystems, and the full cost of removing the dams versus relicensing them., among other areas of concern.
According to Shea, KL&P isn't withholding any of that information. It's asking those same questions, and just doesn't have the answers yet.
"We're concerned about the health of the rivers,"Grabin said, noting that the Mousam is now the largest river in Maine with no system for fish passage.
Fish ladders of some sort will be required if the dams are relicensed, Grabin claimed, citing "over a million dollars" for that project alone.
The purpose of the May 28 forum, Grabin said, is to get issues into the public consciousness that were passed over at the March 31 meeting.
"There are so many questions people asked, including selectmen, and so few answers given," he said. "In some cases that was due to the fact that KPLD didn't have the answers, in other cases that they didn't want to get into the discussion, but for whatever reason, we were left with a slew of questions with no answers and a lot of frustrated people in the audience.
"We do have a desired outcome in mind, but we're not fanatical about it," Grabin said. "We just want to have a good discussion, a good community process and a good decision made that's a good decision for everyone."
"Going through the process of thinking about a dam removal does take a lot of time," said Landis Hudson of Yarmouth, director of Maine Rivers. "It's important for people to learn about the history of the river and to really think about its potential for the future, and that involves an ecological understanding in addition to economics. We hope to bring forward a thoughtful discussion.
"People need to understand that the river, if the dams are removed, won't become a muddy trickle," she said. "And even when a dam has been in place for longer than our lifetimes, it's not natural to the landscape. People built it for a reason, but it's important in each case to consider whether it's worth keeping it or whether there are benefits to removing it."
Grabin and Hudson declined to offer an opinion on King's bill Friday, saying they had not yet had a chance to review it.
"I have not seen that, but we have been talking to the senator and will continue talking to him about the importance of balancing hydro with river-healthy practices," Hudson said. "People need to understand the impact hydro power can have on rivers, and sometimes those impacts are very negative. Even small operations can have very big impacts."
Shea also said he had not seen the bill when taking a pass on commenting Monday.
Staz, however, has read the bill and said, "We believe it will help."
"I think it’s a direct result of his visit here on March 20," said Staz, who testified in Washington D.C. on regulatory issues earlier that month. "We like the idea that FERC would make sure other agencies involved met their deadlines, which seems to be one of the biggest issues. Things get tied up and then extended and extended and extended.
"That can take another five to 10 years on top of FERC's process. To me that’s just unreasonable and I think it was to the senator, as well," she said.
Staz said since last week she has offered commentary on King's bill, asking that its intent be made clear, that it applies to relicensing as well as new licenses. A new draft is expected soon, she said.
However, Staz said she is "not confident" King's bill will become law in time to help KL&P, given the glacial pace of Congressional action.
"But that doesn’t mean the bill shouldn't be supported," Staz said. "There are a numebr of small hydros in our state, across New England, and across the country which, quite frankly, face the same hurdles as us."