NextEra’s Weston Dam in Skowhegon, Maine is one of seven dams at the center of NELC’s lawsuit to protect endangered Atlantic salmon.

Portland, ME–On Jan. 31, NELC attorneys filed four lawsuits in federal district court against the owners and operators of seven dams on Maine’s Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers, citing their failure to take required steps to protect the nearly extinct Atlantic salmon populations inhabiting those rivers.

The suits allege that operations at each of the dams constitute an illegal “take” of Atlantic salmon in violation of the Endangered Species Act. In addition, the Kennebec River suits allege a violation of Clean Water Act water quality certifications prohibiting the owners and operators from allowing the fish to swim into the dams’ turbines.

The suits were filed on behalf of Environment Maine, a statewide advocacy group, and Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, a local organization named for the estuary that is shared by the two rivers. With ten adult salmon returning to the Androscoggin and five returning to the Kennebec in 2010, numbers precipitously below historical norms of 100,000 or more, the groups believe that litigation will be necessary to save the species.

The four complaints cite findings by the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that dams “are among the leading causes of both historical declines and contemporary low abundance” of Kennebec and Androscoggin salmon, and that “dams remain a direct and significant threat to Atlantic salmon.”

The complaints allege that migrating salmon are injured or killed when they attempt to pass through the dams’ rotating turbine blades, that the dams impede upstream and downstream passage, thus preventing salmon from gaining access to spawning and rearing habitat, and that the dams alter the natural habitat of the salmon to such a degree that the essential behavior patterns of the fish are significantly impaired.

Among the seven energy companies named as defendants is NextEra Energy Resources, a nationwide private utility that owns and operates four of the dams. The complaints allege that NextEra and the other dam owners have refused to implement basic, affordable protection measures that have been adopted elsewhere, such as installing effective devices to divert salmon from the turbines.