Great Falls on the Androscoggin River between Lewiston and Auburn roars with the spring melt and recent rainfall.  Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — As more people escape outdoors to get some fresh air during the public health emergency, local officials are concerned that it’s coinciding with spring flows and dangerous currents on the Androscoggin River.

Late April is typically when the river reaches peak levels due to spring snowmelt and rainfall. Last year, levels reached a five-year high during the week of April 21.

Miranda Kessel, manager of stakeholder relations for Brookfield Renewable, which owns several hydroelectric dams in the state, said the company is seeing an unusually high number of people using paths and recreational areas along the Saco and Androscoggin rivers — so much that the company has closed recreational sites in Greene and Brunswick as a precaution.

“As the public seeks outdoor activities in accordance with CDC and state guidelines, Brookfield Renewable reminds members of the public to use safe recreation practices when it comes to fishing, boating or being near water and hydroelectric facilities along the Androscoggin River,” she said.

Kessel said people are using the areas earlier than normal in the spring, and some are showing signs they “don’t understand the hazards of spring flows.”

“In addition to recent weather events, the Androscoggin River is characteristically subject to high flows and dangerous rapids from April through mid-May due to seasonal runoff and snowmelt,” she said. “Currents are exponentially stronger in the spring in comparison to summer months.”

Next week will mark the two-year anniversary of when the McFarland brothers fell into the river while playing at Bonney Park in Auburn on April 24, 2018.

Since then, there have been more calls for education and safety measures along the river, especially during peak flows in the spring. After the incident, both cities installed signs to warn residents of the dangerous currents.

Following the incident in 2018, a group of city officials and law enforcement from Lewiston-Auburn met with representatives from Brookfield Renewable to evaluate the response effort.

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque said Wednesday that the city plans to issue messages to the community “reminding them that the river is beautiful and vibrant but also dangerous and powerful.”

Last year, the city installed fencing along the riverbanks at Bonney Park in order to dissuade people from getting too close to the river.

Unlike last year, the Androscoggin County Emergency Management Agency has not yet issued any flood warnings or cautions regarding water levels, but the river has not yet reached peak flows.

Kessel said Brookfield will not open its dam and fish-viewing window in Brunswick for the 2020 season, from May through mid-July, and that the Cherry Pond recreation site in Greene will remain closed.

“These closures were made due to social distancing measures put in place for confined spaces, areas prone to crowds and to minimize employee exposure,” she said.

For boaters and anglers, she said, the boat barriers at Brookfield Renewable hydroelectric and recreation facilities are not installed until May, when conditions are safe enough for workers to place them in the water.

Boat barriers are typically installed in late May at the dams operated by Brookfield Renewable along the Androscoggin River in Maine. Locally, this includes the hydro facilities at Gulf Island, Deer Rips, Monty Hydro, Topsham and Brunswick.

The Turner and Durham boat launches stay open year-round without boat barriers installed. The Topsham boat launch and Higgins boat launch in Auburn will remain closed until the start of recreation season in May, Kessel said.

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