NB Power is investing $2.3 million to study the potential environmental impacts of future options being considered for the aging Mactaquac Dam, officials announced in Fredericton on Tuesday.

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NB Power has three years to decide how to deal with Mactaquac Dam, which will reach the end of its lifespan by 2030.

The utility has hired the University of New Brunswick's Canadian Rivers Institute to provide independent research on the three options — rebuilding it, maintaining the earthen dam and spillway only, or removing it and returning the St. John River to its natural state.

NB Power must choose a preferred option by 2016, given the anticipated times required for federal and provincial approvals, design and site work, said president and CEO Gaëtan Thomas.

The dam will reach the end of its lifespan by 2030, he said.

Stephanie Merrill, of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, applauds NB Power's move to look ahead.

"There's lots of time to weigh the options, to do the science that's needed to understand the impacts of all of the options and the Canadian Rivers Institute is the perfect group of scientists to be undertaking this with," she said.

The institute will evaluate key environmental challenges related to the dam, including river health, fish passage and flow management, said project director Allen Curry.

"Our goal is to provide objective and transparent science that is accessible and defensible," Curry said in a statement.

"The three years will get us to a point where NB Power will be in a position to make an informed decision about which of the options they want to take forward," he said.

Meanwhile, the utility will be doing its own research on the economic and social impacts of any changes, seeking advice from experts and meeting with First Nations people who live and work near the dam, as well as other stakeholders.

The 660 megawatt plant, which officially opened in 1969, was originally expected to churn out electricity until 2068.

But its life expectancy is now 2030 because the concrete used to build the power house and spillways began expanding and causing cracks.