WESTBROOK – After a two-year construction project, Sappi Fine Paper North America on Wednesday unveiled its Cumberland Mills fishway, a natural fish passage that will allow river herring, shad and other types of fish to pass up the Presumpscot River for the first time in more than 150 years.
“It’s probably the biggest accomplishment of my life to see this fish passage open. We’ve been working toward this day since 1996,” said William Plumley, a founding member of Friends of the Presumpscot, a group that has worked for 17 years to get a fish passage through the river system.
Sappi hosted an opening ceremony at the Westbrook mill to show off the newly finished fish passage, which the company says cost $4.8 million. The finished project will not only allow natural fish movement up a denil ladder – a structure built on artificial barriers that allows fish to swim or leap up the barriers – but also, as part of the project, Sappi reconstructed a 150-year-old river gate in the east channel that will direct fish to the natural passage by eliminating excess water flow to other river channels.
“It’s a very exciting day today. For the first day in 150 years fish will be able to pass up river at Cumberland Mills Dam. We’re very excited that the project was completed on time, safely and effectively, so all the passage goals were really fulfilled,” Donna Cassese, managing director for the Westbrook mill, told the crowd at the event, attended by mill and city officials and environmentalists.
Now that the fish ladder at Cumberland Mills is complete, black herring, alewives, shad and other species can pass through the bridge, but can’t move much further upstream until the next step in the Presumpscot River dams, the Saccarappa Falls, has been addressed.
In March, Sappi officials said they had begun working with the city to study the impact of removing the hydroelectric dam at Saccarappa Falls.
Jerre Bryant, city administrator, said there are a few ways to restore the passages. One is that Sappi can maintain the dam structure and construct an alterative fish passage such as the one at Cumberland Mills. State law mandates that a natural fish passage must be in place by 2015.
“We’re still dedicated to our mission to protect and improve the water quality, indigenous fish population, recreational opportunities and natural beauty of the river. There’s still more to be done,” Plumley said.
In 1999, as part of the re-licensing of the dams, the state required Sappi to maintain minimum stream flows and install passageways on its dams for migratory fish and eels. The mill fought the ruling through a series of appeals, saying the regulations shouldn't apply because no pollutants are added to the water as it passes through the turbines. In 2009, after the state ruled Sappi must install a fish passage, the company finally agreed and began to draw up plans, which were initiated in 2011.
Sappi purchased the Westbrook mill from S.D. Warren in 1995. The S.D. Warren mill has sat on the banks of the Presumpscot River in Westbrook since 1854 and has deep ties with the city. According to tax documents, mills have been sitting in the same area of Sappi since 1733.
Although the Presumpscot is only 25 miles long, connecting Sebago Lake to Casco Bay, it drops 270 feet. When the natural falls could not create enough waterpower, the dams were built to supplement the power needed to keep the mills running.
“We’re beyond excited to see fish going up the river,” said Mayor Colleen Hilton on Wednesday. “This is renewing the life of the river and there’s more to come this summer, with the ramps and docks. We’re all so hopeful this will bring more recreation to the river. It’s a great day for Westbrook.”