Nature Connects

April 2024

Harnessing the ecological strength of Maine’s largest waterfall

Restoring natural river flow supports fisheries, aquatic habitat, and recreation, all of which are central to Maine’s economic growth and environmental values.

Steve Heinz | Special to the Telegram

Rumford Falls, in Oxford County’s Town of Rumford, is the largest waterfall in the United States east of Niagara. Historian George J. Varney called it "the grandest cataract in New England." At that spot, the Androscoggin River drops 177 feet before continuing on its path through Lewiston, Lisbon, Topsham, and into Merrymeeting Bay.

Today, a series of dams and canals divert the water from its natural pathway, and the highest part of the falls receives little to no water flow for most of the year. Originally built in the early 20th century to support a large pulp and paper mill, today the project is owned by Brookfield Renewable, a global, multibillion-dollar energy company. The hydroelectricity generated is sold on the grid.

To maximize power generation, Brookfield reroutes the river to flow into a powerhouse that bypasses the dams. For more than three-quarters of the year, nearly all of the river’s water is diverted. In the spring, snowmelt and rain increase river flow to levels that surpass the hydraulic capacity of the project, and the river is free to run along its natural path, offering Rumford residents and visitors too brief a time to enjoy and appreciate this natural wonder.

The federal government requires relicensing for projects like this, and Brookfield Renewable is currently undergoing relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Unfortunately, its application for a 40-year license only requires “leakage” as the minimum water flow at the upper dam, and its proposed minimum flow at the lower dam is far beneath levels needed to sustain a functional community of aquatic life. This affects fish and other aquatic species downstream of the falls.

River systems rely on a consistent flow of water. Aquatic species depend on access to oxygen-rich water to support their health and survival. A sustained flow also provides a safe path for commercially important fish like American eel to migrate downstream. Without that pathway, the fish are forced into the project’s turbines.

Right now, a group of stakeholders – including Trout Unlimited, American Whitewater, Maine Rivers, Friends of Richardson Lake, Appalachian Mountain Club, and the Conservation Law Foundation – is advocating for increased minimum flow over the dams to support the ecological health of the river and promote recreational opportunities. Maine environmental laws require companies to demonstrate they can support all designated uses of the river—not just power generation, but fisheries, recreation, and aquatic habitat. We believe Brookfield’s current proposal is inadequate.

Increasing minimum flows would benefit the river, but it would also limit the amount of power Brookfield Renewable can produce at Rumford Falls. That would also affect the Town of Rumford, which currently receives over one third of its property taxes from the project, and less power generation would mean reductions in tax revenue for the town. But increasing natural water flows would have important economic benefits for Rumford. Not only would it enhance water quality and improve aquatic habitat, it would also support recreational fishing, whitewater rafting, hiking, and nature viewing—key revenue opportunities.

In the 1960s, the Androscoggin River was deemed one of the most polluted rivers in the nation. The level of contamination was so bad that it inspired former U.S. Senator (and Rumford native) Edmund Muskie to introduce one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation in history: the Clean Water Act. As

Muskie himself once said, "High quality water is more than the dream of the conservationists, more than a political slogan; high quality water, in the right quantity at the right place at the right time, is essential to health, recreation, and economic growth." It is ironic that a memorial to him stands in Rumford in view of the falls.

The relicensing process through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is open to public comment and while sooner is better, comments still should have an effect until July of this year. If you want to share your opinion on this issue, you can submit a comment online. Just reference project number P-2333. With our voices, perhaps one day, the water will thunder spectacularly over Rumford Falls again!

Steve Heinz coordinates dam relicensing actions for the Maine Council of Trout Unlimited.

“Nature Connects” is a monthly column featuring conservation stories from people and organizations across Maine. To learn more or suggest story ideas, email .