LEWISTON — More water over the Great Falls sounded like a good idea to city councilors Tuesday.
But councilors were cool to expanding the city’s canals enough to allow kayaking, surfing and standing waves.
“It strikes me that doing that kind of flow through canals, I don’t believe they were designed to handle that kind of volume,” Councilor Michael Lachance said. “I have real concerns about the durability of the canals, their maintenance and upkeep and re-engineering and reinforcing them to handle that kind of flow.”
Members of Grow L+A urged councilors Tuesday to consider expanded recreation along Lewiston’s waterways, both the Androscoggin River and the downtown canals.
“The aesthetics of water flowing over Great Falls year round would encourage people to come to L-A and hike, canoe, dine, fish, and it would bring new opportunities for jobs and business and a great tax base,” said Peter Rubins, chairman of Grow L+A’s Androscoggin River Recreational Task Force.
Rubins and other members of the group met with councilors during a special workshop meeting.
The city has been in negotiations to take over the canals since 2008. The canals were dug in the mid-1800s and were first owned by Union Power. That was taken over by Central Maine Power, which was later purchased by Florida Power and Light and later renamed NextEra Energy Maine.
The city and NextEra were close to an agreement in 2012 when the company withdrew and sold it assets to Canada-based Brookfield Renewable Power.
Rubins said increased water flow over the falls and through the canals could be made key parts of the city’s negotiations with Brookfield.
“The Great Falls are one of Maine’s geological wonders,” Rubins said. “Its history is from 10,000 years, Indian occupation to being the main source of L-A’s power during the Industrial Revolution. And yet the Great Falls remain dry nearly 10 months out of the year.”
Grow L+A’s proposal called for a $40,000 feasibility study to look at ways Brookfield and other dam owners upstream along the Androscoggin River could expand recreation. That study would become part of the dam owners’ licensing efforts with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission down the line.
Specifically in Lewiston, Rubins said expanded recreation could mean new, more active uses for the canals. He imagined surfing waves for canoes, kayaks and boogie boards between the Bates Mill buildings and expanded and deepened canals around Simard/Payne Memorial Park that would be suitable for rafting.
City Councilor Mark Cayer balked at that. He noted that the city named that park in 2007 in honor of two Lewiston police officers killed in the line of duty, officers David Payne and Paul Simard.
“Have you considered that this park is devoted to slain police officers?” Cayer asked. “This may not be appropriate for that park.”
City Administrator Ed Barrett said the city has been meeting with Brookfield regularly to negotiate ownership of the canals.
“I think we have made some good progress here over the last 18 months,” Barrett said. “But you always get a bit nervous when you get that far down the road, and then try to go back to your partner to and say, ‘Oh, well. Let’s take a timeout here.'”