LEWISTON — After a multi-year process, the city could finally take ownership of the canal system as soon as this month.
The City Council will vote Tuesday to allow City Administrator Ed Barrett to sign the documents to close the deal with canal owner Brookfield. According to a memo from Barrett, “the closing could occur as early as later this month.”
The initial agreement to transfer ownership of the downtown canals was made in September 2016 and it gives Lewiston control of the canal system while keeping the historic water levels flowing through them.
Officials from the city and Brookfield have since been finalizing the deal with federal agencies.
The canals date to the mid-1800s when they were first dug to harness the Androscoggin River’s power for industry. However, the system plays almost no role in generating power.
The city has pursued ownership of the canal system in order to restore the aesthetics of the downtown waterways, which officials have said were once a unique and attractive amenity for the city.
The “donation agreement” between the city and Brookfield – negotiated for more than seven years – was ultimately subject to an amendment to Brookfield’s license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees hydro licenses nationwide.
FERC recently approved the amendment in Brookfield’s license, which removes the canal system from its control.
With approval from the City Council on Tuesday, Barrett can complete all of the documents that require signature at closing.
Lewiston’s Riverfront Island Master Plan proposes the canals as a central piece of economic development in the city, and includes projects such as a canal walk connecting downtown to the riverfront and an amphitheatre and other improvements in Simard-Payne Memorial Park.
The canals run for more than 1.5 miles through the downtown, beginning just downstream of the Great Falls 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.
The agreement with Brookfield allows the city to use the water for power generation and other purposes, potentially including recreation like kayaking.
According to the Riverfront Island Master Plan, historical photographs and postcards show the canals “as gracious tree-lined waterways,” but that currently “the tree canopy is much deteriorated and the canals are frequently treated primarily as safety hazards, surrounded by unattractive fences and other barriers.”
The plan says city ownership will allow for consideration of water-based recreation such as small boats, kayaks or ice skating in the winter.
Mayor Shane Bouchard said Monday that the city has been working on the canal acquisition ever since he was elected to the City Council in 2014.
“It will be nice to finally get it done,” he said. “It will provide us with a lot more flexibility and control as we work to reshape our downtown, mill district and riverfront.”
The canals were first owned by Lewiston Water Power Co., later called Union Power. That was later taken over by Central Maine Power, which eventually sold the canals to Canada-based Brookfield in 2012.Due to the Presidents Day holiday, Lewiston city staff could not be reached for comment Monday.
After a lengthy process, Lewiston will take ownership of the historic canal system within a few weeks, according to City Administrator Ed Barrett. (Sun Journal file photo )
Lewiston’s canal system runs 1.5 miles through downtown.