By Jonathan P. LaBonte
Mayor of Auburn
Last week, the LA Metro Chamber hosted its monthly breakfast at the Franco Center in Lewiston highlighting the topic of the Androscoggin River.
I was pleased to be able to share the floor with Ed Barrett, City Administrator of Lewiston, and Shelley Kruszewski and Jim Pross from the Androscoggin Land Trust to provide an update on progress being made to reconnect the community with the river and the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.
While many in Auburn have heard my pitch before about how the rivers, both the Androscoggin and often-forgotten Little Androscoggin, could be recreational and environmental assets that would attract people to visit and want to live in our neighborhoods, it seemed like this might be a chance to check in again as we enter spring.
For longtime residents, the saying “too thick to paddle, too thin to plow” may ring a bell. In the earliest days of Auburn and Lewiston, and while the economy was strong with thousands and thousands of manufacturing jobs, the riverwater quality, quantity of water and access to the river was controlled by the industrialists that owned the mills and dams.
Today, we can all agree that effort to improve the water quality has made tremendous strides. The rivers downtown are rated swimmable and fishable. During major community events, families can be seen walking the riverwalks or paddling or fishing along the banks.
And the era of jobs-versus-a-clean river has given way to major local employers, and even small businesses, seeing the river and the trails and parks around it as a source of volunteer opportunities for clean-up and stewardship and even as a means to promote wellness among their staff. Some companies even promote these outdoor assets as they seek to attract talent to work for them.
But while improvements have been made to water quality, the quantity of water in the river and access to it is still controlled predominantly by the multi-national corporations that own the dams on the Androscoggin and Little Androscoggin Rivers.
Both cities have laid out ambitious plans over the last two decades to attract private investment and people into the core of the city. Areas that once couldn’t hold paint on the sides of buildings now sit along miles of waterfront.
When access to the water, for paddling, fishing or walking is limited, when views are restricted and when so little water flows that fish restoration, recreational access and even the aesthetic value of the Great Falls are limited, the community should be seeking to use the tools available to address that challenge.
Both the Great Falls (or Lewiston Falls as it’s known for hydroelectric power) and the Little Androscoggin Falls (Barker Dams in New Auburn) are the subject of filings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC ensures that the parameters of the Federal Power Act and other federal rules are followed for allowing private corporations to profit from a public resource. In this case, it’s allowing KEI and Brookfield to profit from use of the Little Androscoggin and Androscoggin Rivers.
Those public-benefit requirements include supporting fish restoration, providing for recreational access by investing their financial resources in it, ensuring flows to support fisheries and recreation and protecting aesthetic and cultural assets.
The key is to balance the economics of private profit with the public benefits a local community should receive. When both cities find themselves taking more time than we’d hope to implement riverfront development plans since we are relying so heavily on local property taxpayers, it’s time we organize to rebalance the scales.
The major drop in the rivers as they flow through Lewiston-Auburn does set the stage for major hydroelectric power production. This is part of the heritage of this community, and we should continue to support it. There have been minor investments 20 to 30 years ago in river access, though the cost of maintenance was shifted from the hydro company to the property taxpayer.
The federal decisions on the Lewiston Falls/Great Falls and the Little Androscoggin River will set the stage for what the next 30 to 50 years could look like. It’s time we demanded more from those profiting from our rivers by asking for their partnership in our redevelopment.