I have spent much my life working to improve Maine’s environment. I was a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Maine for 32 years, commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for four, and chaired Maine’s former Land Use Regulation Commission when we established the state’s first river classification system, which was based primarily on water quality.
In all of that time, nothing has made me prouder than the dramatic recovery of the Penobscot River. Thousands of people, myself included, worked hard to enable the Penobscot River Restoration Trust to purchase three dams, remove two, and build a precedent-setting stream-like bypass around a third. Sea-run fish, such as alewives and shad, have now moved upriver to places they haven’t been in 150 years. They have done so faster and in larger numbers than I could have imagined.
The river is also cleaner today than I ever thought it would be. There is now more oxygen for all those returning fish and more plentiful bottom-dwelling organisms that form the base of the aquatic food chain. The Penobscot Nation and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection have monitored the river for decades and have documented this improved water quality.
Every three years, state and federal law require DEP to review the quality of Maine waters and upgrade protections for waters that have improved significantly. During the LePage years, DEP largely let this requirement lapse. The good news is that the DEP released a package of proposed upgrades in the spring of 2018, and it was an impressive list of more than 400 miles of rivers and streams. All of these stream and river segments meet the water quality standards for the higher levels of protection DEP has proposed. Some examples include the trout streams around Webb Lake near Tumbledown Mountain, a big piece of Wesserunsett Stream in central Maine and Tunk Stream in Cherryfield.
DEP’s most meaningful proposed upgrades to me are in the Penobscot watershed. They include Fish Stream, which winds through the ecologically unique Crystal Bog and flows into the West Branch of the Mattawamkeag River, which DEP also proposed for upgrade. Atlantic salmon formally swam up the Mattawamkeag, and I hope they soon will do so again.
Most importantly, DEP proposed upgrades to the West Branch and main stem of the Penobscot River near Millinocket and Medway. These stretches of river are currently Class C, which is the lowest level of protection for rivers in Maine. DEP has proposed to make them Class B, which offers significantly better water quality protection. If the Legislature passes these upgrades, all of the Penobscot will have Class B or better protections; something the Penobscot Nation has been striving toward for decades.
I never believed the entire Penobscot River would be clean enough to meet Class B standards. However, even though Class B provides high levels of protection, it does not require “zero discharge.” For example, DEP computer modeling shows that new industry could easily relocate to the Millinocket area. Although any modern facility is likely to discharge relatively small amounts of pollution, new industrial plants in Millinocket could discharge roughly the same amount as two pulp and paper mills like the Verso mill in Jay and still meet the requirements of Class B. New industry will be welcome in the Penobscot watershed; it just needs to be more respectful of the river than industry has been in the past.
DEP’s river and stream upgrade proposal recently passed Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection unanimously. The Legislature will have the final say on the proposal in the next several months. I urge the Legislature to recognize the big strides in water quality that we continue to make in Maine and pass DEP’s excellent proposal in its entirety. Clean water benefits us all.
Ray “Bucky” Owen of Orono is a retired professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Maine, former commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and chaired Maine’s former Land Use Regulation Commission.