Jonathan LaBonte blasts dam operators for closing canals

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AUBURN – In a blistering post on Facebook, Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte is criticizing the corporate operators of a hydropower dam on the Androsscoggin River just days before one of Twin Cities largest festivals.

“The balloon festival weekend approaches and I’m struggling at the moment to not be completely ticked off,” LaBonte wrote in the post on his page Wednesday evening.

LaBonte lambasted the Canada-based Brookfield Renewable Power writing, “The multi-national corporation that controls most of the Androscoggin, including the canals, has now prohibited paddling access to the canals from the river (a key element of getting folks to dream of what’s possible here) and also shut down the rubber duck race in the canal from Main Street that was a major fundraiser for the Rotary Club in town.

The post continues, “If these two actions by a billion-dollar corporation in the short days before the festival don’t make Lewiston AND Auburn want to come together to build a case for getting control of our River and our canals . . . I’m not sure we ever will.”

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On Thursday morning, LaBonte said he’s frustrated Brookfield didn’t try to work out a compromise regarding the rubber duck race fundraiser that’s put on by the local club. Brookfield does intend to donate to the club as a way to help offset some of the revenue loss, a company spokesman said.

“What I don’t understand with the duck race, is if there was a liability for the Rotary Club, because their members were in canoes collecting the ducks, why couldn’t Brookfield as a show of good faith offer their staff, who are covered by their liability to be there,” LaBonte asked. “They’ve owned the canal for three years now. What made it the week of the balloon festival? Couldn’t they have gone to the Rotary Club a couple of years ago, and said you’ve got two years to figure this out?”

LaBonte also said the company has been involved in recent discussions with groups that use the river in the cities and has made no mention of the pending decision to shut down canal access for boaters.

 “I’ve been leading community paddling events for six or seven years now and going into the branch canal near the Continental Mill, in between that and the old generator, and using that as one of those experiences that gets people excited about what’s possible for the canals and our riverfront,” LaBonte said.

LaBonte, who formerly served as the executive director of the Androscoggin Land Trust, has touted the canals as part of the attraction to the river for paddlers and visitors for years. He said Thursday he was frustrated about the seemingly sudden decision by Brookfield to bar access. 

LaBonte said he was contemplating organizing some kind of civil action to protest the move by Brookfield. “Instead of a sit-in we will have a paddle-in,” LaBonte said.

LaBonte later said he had a productive conversation with Brookfield’s community relations director Brian Smith.

“It appears there was a disconnect with their own internal communications and doing things on the river and their community relations folks not being aware,” LaBonte said. He said a recent retirement prompted a review by Brookfield of various assets on the ground and a new manager decided the canal access points should be closed to protect public safety, LaBonte said.

LaBonte said he still had concerns, including questions over whether the land Brookfield is using to anchor its barricading buoys belongs to the company or not.

“The next step and they agree, in the next week or two we will sit down and talk about it,” LaBonte said. “I have an interest as a paddler, as a community activist and as mayor but that’s probably a conversation Lewiston wants to be a part of too.”

On the other side of the river, city officials in Lewiston have been negotiating with the various owners of the canals since 2008. The canal was dug in the mid-1800s and first owned by Union Water Power Co., which was taken over by Central Maine Power. CMP was purchased by Florida Power and Light, which was renamed NextEra Energy. In 2012, the city was close to an agreement with NextEra but the company withdrew from negotiations and later sold its assets to Brookfield.

Smith confirmed he and LaBonte had spoken and the company would meet with the mayor to further discuss the barricades.

“It’s just a public safety concern,” Smith said. “There had traditionally been some public access there for kayakers and whatnot. He understands the public safety concerns and I think he appreciates them as we do, so we are just going to get together before the end of the month and try to discuss it out.”

Sun Journal Staff Writer Scott Taylor contributed to this report.

sthistle@sunjournal.com

Canal facts and background

The canals run for 1.5 miles through the downtown, beginning just downstream of the Great Falls on the Androscoggin River and rejoining the river just south of Locust Street. The system includes two main canals, upper and lower, and two cross canals. Water levels are controlled by the gatehouse at the top canal system.

They were built to power Lewiston’s mills and still generate electricity.

The city has long considered the canals a downtown asset. They are a major factor in the Riverfront Island Master Plan, adopted by the city in 2012, which called for using them as a recreational asset.

Currently, the city has rights to the first 150 cubic feet per second of water flowing through the canals.

According to the negotiations with previous owners NextEra Energy, the city would have created a tax increment finance district around the Monty Hydro Facility and the Deer Rips Dam. Proceeds from that TIF would have paid for $750,000 of repairs to the canal and the weirs. The city would have given up right to all but 70 cubic feet of water per second through the canals. That would have been supplemented by occasional flows of 224 cubic feet per second several times per year to flush the canals.

Lewiston would have given up its claim to 151 cubic feet per second of water, accepting the smaller 70 cubic feet of water per second flow, under that negotiated deal.

That deal failed in 2012, just before NextEra Energy transferred control of the canals to Brookfield, the current owners.

– Sun Journal Staff Writer Scott Taylor

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