Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program: Maine
Education, Research and Technical Assistance for Managing Our Natural Resources

Maine Project

Understanding decision-making behavior regarding fish passage and management in New England.

June 2015 - December 2019


Participating Agencies

  • Senator George Mitchell Center, University of Maine

Decision-making regarding dams in New England stands at a crossroad. Over 52 dams in Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island will require FERC relicensing in the next decade, many are approaching their design life, and, as evidenced by the groundswell of support for the watershed-scale Penobscot River Restoration project in Maine, preferences for dams and ecosystem services are changing. However, despite increased momentum for change and renewed calls to consider a broader range of options including removal, dams remain a symbol of cultural identity, economic prosperity, and technological innovation; they represent a source for clean energy and an opportunity for recreation. Reconciling these competing demands is difficult and decisions are often fraught with intense controversy as stakeholders face uncertainties related to different management options. Placed squarely at the center of the contentious debate is numerous federal and state resource and regulatory agencies charged with the difficult task of balancing ecological, economic, and social tradeoffs related to dam relicensing decisions.
Numerous federal and state agencies assert jurisdiction over dam projects, and a confusing array of laws and policies inform dam relicensing, removal, retrofit, and on-going operations. As key stakeholders in the process, however, agencies have the unique opportunity to serve as “agents of change.” Through interagency coordination and engagement with stakeholders including private landowners, non-governmental organizations, municipal governments, and industry, agencies have the capacity to mobilize action at the basin-wide scale using a range of regulatory and non-regulatory tools. Conceptual “blueprints” for basin-scale hydropower development have been introduced (e.g., NOAA’s Basin-Scale Opportunity Assessment Initiative), and existing regulatory tools (e.g., compensatory mitigation under the Clean Water Act) and planning programs (e.g., Partners for Fish and Wildlife) can potentially be targeted to inform decision-making. To date, these decision frameworks and “hooks” have proven more difficult to implement in practice. Instead agency actions tend to be case-specific and reactive in response to individual projects and events rather than proactive, considering alternative actions and consequences before issues reach a boiling point. Research and engagement targeted at understanding agency actions and perspectives including knowledge gaps and challenges faced in the relicensing process is urgently needed to inform more proactive basin-scale decision-making at this critical juncture in dam decision-making.