LEWISTON — Should we sharpen our ice skates or get our kayaks ready? 

Officials in Lewiston announced Friday that the city has finally taken ownership of the historic canal system after years of negotiations with owner Brookfield Renewable. The canals were donated Thursday, according to a city news release.

The initial agreement to transfer ownership of the downtown canals was made in September 2016. Since then, officials from the city and Brookfield have been finalizing the deal with federal agencies. 

The city will pursue work to clean up and restore the system. City staff has pictured ice skating or small boats on the canals, breathing life and recreation into the downtown. 

The canals date to the mid-1800s when they were first dug to harness the Androscoggin River’s power for industry. However, the system now plays almost no role in generating power. 

A city news release Friday said Lewiston “has sought ownership of the canals to improve the aesthetics of the system with a goal of returning them to the gracious tree-lined waterways that were historically an attractive amenity for the city.”

“This will support economic development efforts throughout our downtown, mill district, and riverfront by creating stronger and more inviting connections between key destinations and an environment that will invite residents and visitors to experience our unique, natural, and historic offerings,” Mayor Shane Bouchard said. 

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.

Work to acquire the canals has been ongoing for about 10 years, but according to the news release, when Brookfield acquired the system in 2013, it allowed “the negotiations to begin anew.”

The agreement between Brookfield and the city stipulates that Brookfield make certain repairs and improvements to the system, while ensuring that the city would retain all existing water rights and be allowed to use the water for purposes other than power generation.

According to the news release, “All of these conditions have been met, and the donation was completed on March 22, 2018.”

Tom Uncher, vice president of operations for Brookfield Renewable, said in the release, “This has been a collaborative effort between Brookfield Renewable and the City of Lewiston. It is important to us that we are actively engaged in the communities we operate in and that our employees call home. Lewiston will now have the ability to highlight such an important part of the region’s history. We look forward to seeing how this plays a role in the city’s overall economic growth and development.”

After years of negotiations, the city officially took ownership of the historic canal system March 22. (Sun Journal file photo)

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