Cross-border dam generates no power, but its uncertain fate fuels anxiety
Near Forest City, hundreds of property owners on both sides of the border await answers
The tiny Forest City dam on the border between Maine and New Brunswick doesn't look like much more than a pile of rusting iron and aged lumber.
Plants and weeds grow throughout the rock-and-crib-style dam, which is home to a family of weasels, a rudimentary passage for fish and is used in summer by local kids to float inner tubes through its gates.
The dam itself doesn't generate electricity. It was built to help loggers float their timber to local mills. But its three gates have maintained the waters of East Grand Lake on New Brunswick's western border at consistent levels for almost 180 years.
And that simple fact has hundreds of waterfront property owners in Canada and the United States furious there's a chance the dam could be removed, leaving cottages, docks and boat launches high and dry.
"They'll cease to be cottage lots," said Canadian David Townsend, the president of the Chiputneticook Lakes International Conservancy, or CLIC, named for a group of lakes that include East Grand Lake. "They won't be water lots at all.
"The water won't be anywhere near their location. So, they'll be worth half, or less, of what they're worth now."
What makes the situation especially odd is that that the dam sits on the Canada-U.S. border. A person could easily throw a rock over it from one country and hit the other. One part of the dam, including one gate, is in Canada. The other part and two gates are located in the U.S.
The border splits the lake in half, with American cottagers on one side, Canadians on the other. The issue threatening the dam involves only U.S. regulators. But in reality, half a dam is not a dam, so residents in both countries are invested.
"It'd be like being in a bathtub where they say we're just going to pull our side of the cork and it doesn't concern you," said Townsend.
Throw in some big-name cottage owners, like New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, who was born and raised in Forest City, potato mogul Andrew McCain, and former Texas legislator Barry Connelly with summer homes on the lake and you've got a little dam with a lot riding on it.
Townsend and more than 300 other Canadians and U.S. property owners attended a public hearing in Danforth, Maine, on Wednesday evening. Many were turned away as the cafeteria at East Grand High School was filled to capacity.
Those who did make it in watched two U.S. government departments and a pulp company play a game of hot potato with the dam.
For now, nobody wants it.
For years, the U.S. portion of the dam has been owned and operated by Woodland Pulp LLC. Historically, it's been used to maintain water levels and mitigate flooding for the company's pulp and paper mill about 100 kilometres downriver.
The sticking point is whether the dam has any effect on power generation downstream at Maine's Grand Falls generating station in Baileyville.
Woodland Pulp maintains that three flow-modelling studies it commissioned show that the Forest City dam doesn't contribute significantly to power generation.
But the contribution is enough for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to claim jurisdiction.
FERC maintains the flow generated by the Forest City dam contributes "significantly" to power generation at the Grand Falls station.
So, for years the commission has granted an annual licence to Woodland Pulp to own and operate the U.S. part of the dam.
In 2009, FERC made changes, offering a 30-year licence to the company. After a six-year approval process, the licence was awarded to Woodland Pulp.
But it came with unexpected conditions.
According to Woodland Pulp, the company was now faced with the prospect of conducting archeological studies, increased maintenance costs, and the possibility of adding a fish ladder.
"That could be millions of dollars to do it according to FERC standards," said Matthew Manahan, a lawyer representing Woodland Pulp at Wednesday's meeting.
The company spends about $7,000 a year running and maintaining the dam.
"This dam is a net loss for the mill," said Manahan.
In 2016, Woodland Pulp applied to surrender the dam and walk away from the new 30-year licence, leaving hundreds of local residents uncertain about the status of their "waterfront" property.
If the waters on the U.S. side of the lake recede significantly, the newly uncovered land technically becomes the property of Woodland Pulp, creating a barrier between cottage owners and the lake.
It's estimated that if the Forest City dam were to be removed, water levels would drop six to seven feet (1.8 to 2.1 metres.)
When asked if Woodland Pulp would allow property owners to continue to use that land as before, Manahan said the company hadn't even considered the issue yet, but he predicted land use would carry on as usual.
Wednesday's meeting was intended to gather ideas and feedback from the public, with FERC gathering information before deciding on the possibility of a rehearing.
One solution floated Wednesday was to give the U.S. portion of the dam to the state of Maine, but that was immediately rejected as a possible answer.
"We are not able to take ownership of the dam," said Judith Camuso with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
"The state already has 77 dams that are in disrepair and in need of significant investment. We do not have the resources to take ownership of the dam."
The idea of finding a third party to take over the dam has also come up, but any new owner would be held to the same FERC standards and requirements being put to Woodland Pulp.
The company is also proposing permanently closing the two U.S. gates and relying on the single Canadian gate to regulate water flow.
No "American" water flow means no potential power generation, thereby depriving FERC of jurisdiction.
The problem with that approach, according to Manahan, is that at least one of the U.S. gates would still be needed to mitigate floods, something he said is necessary "about three per cent of the time."
So far, Canada, and New Brunswick have stayed out of the debate, though representatives are monitoring the issue. New Brunswick government representatives were present at Wednesday's meeting, as were representatives for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
FERC said it would take what it had learned into consideration for future decisions. But it left many, including Townsend, unimpressed.
"It was a lot like shooting clay pigeons," said Townsend. "All these ideas being thrown around with no specificity.
"It's still completely uncertain."