A century ago, Maine’s Androscoggin and Kennebec Rivers historically featured annual Atlantic salmon runs of 10,000 or more. By 2010, however, the salmon were in steep decline: only ten adult salmon returned to the Androscoggin, and just five made their way up the Kennebec. Hydroelectric dams are a primary driver of this precipitous drop. The seven dams on these rivers generate minuscule amounts of electricity, but pose outsize hazards: juvenile salmon are injured and killed as they pass downstream through giant rotating turbine blades, and the dams block upstream passage for returning adults while raising the water temperatures in their massive impoundments. Because these fish are endangered, injuring or killing them is a prohibited “taking” under the Endangered Species Act, absent a permit or “take statement” that limits harms.
In 2011, on behalf of Environment Maine and Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, NELC filed four lawsuits against the operators of the seven Androscoggin and Kennebec River dams for illegally “taking” salmon:
- Brookfield Renewable Power, Inc. & Hydro Kennebec, LLC;
- Miller Hydro Group;
- NextEra Energy Resources, Inc. and affiliates; and
- Topsham Hydro Partners
Several years of litigation achieved partial success. At long last, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued “incidental take statements” to the seven hydroelectric projects, requiring the operators to conduct extensive studies on salmon mortality and investigate potential protective measures at each dam. Unfortunately, the statements offered the salmon no immediate protection. In another blow, the U.S. District Court declined to enforce a state water quality certification signed by the Kennebec operators, foregoing an opportunity to require them to take concrete steps to reduce salmon injury and mortality.