The Passamaquoddy Tribe is preparing a brief opposing a plan to permanently remove the gates to a St. Croix River dam at East Grand Lake.

The dam, in place in one form or another since 1840, straddles the border between New Brunswick and Maine near Forest City.

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The St. Croix River dam near Forest City affects the water levels in East Grand Lake and North Lake on the New Brunswick-Maine border. (Google Maps)

Its decommissioning would lower water levels on East Grand Lake, nearby North Lake and a connecting stretch known as "The Thoroughfare" by an estimated six feet, or almost two metres.

The dam's owner, Woodland Pulp, of Baileyville, Me., has applied to United States federal regulators to surrender its licence for the structure, open the gates and allow the lake to drain to natural levels.

"We don't want to see the dam partially removed as is being proposed by Woodland Pulp," said Paul Bisulca, an adviser working for the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Maine. "The bottom line is if they do that they are going to affect our ability to move fish up into their spawning habitat."

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Paul Bisulca is an advisor to the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Maine (Penobscotculture.com)

Bisulca says opening the dam as proposed would concentrate the flow of water, threatening the effectiveness of the existing fish ladder which is used currently by such species as landlocked salmon.

He's also concerned lowering the water level on the lakes would expose tribal archeological sites, mostly on the New Brunswick side, to looting.

Too costly for owner

Woodland Pulp, which is owned by a Hong Kong-based holding company, claims a recent order prepared by regulators would force the company to fund "multiple" studies to comply with the terms of its licence for the dam.

That, and other maintenance requirements, according to spokesman Scott Beal, make operating the dam too costly.

In many cases the removal of dams is seen as a good thing for the environment, but Portland-based environmental lawyer Chuck Verrill says Woodland Pulp's proposal should be viewed with caution.

Could make things worse

Verrill says a lot of changes have been made since the first dam in the area in 1840 and opening it now could make things worse.

"We don't know if that would be the natural flow you would have without the dam's existence in the first place," said Verrill. "I think that's something that has to be worked out in a public process where everybody's got a chance to pitch in with their views and accommodations reached."

Staff at the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are reviewing Woodland Pulp's application to surrender its licence to operate the dam.

No decision has been made on whether there will be a public hearing process.