Hatcheries still struggle with water discharges

For more than two decades, the hatcheries of Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife have struggled to meet state rules for the discharge of waste water. It’s a long, sad, history that has frustrated many of the agency’s leaders.

Millions of have been spent to meet state discharge requirements, yet some of the agency’s hatcheries are currently operating with expired licenses from the Department of Environmental Protection.

In 1986 the state adopted a new water classification system that reclassified some watersheds. Discharges in Class A waters were required to be equal or better than the waters into which the water was flowing. Many of DIF&W’s hatcheries are on Class A waters.

In 1995 a Fish Hatchery Task Force tackled the waste discharge issue, reporting “hatchery discharges and their associated impact to water quality of receiving waters has not been a high priority for the DEP,” although some hatcheries were known to have discharge problems.

I am looking at a February 5, 1997 memo from DIF&W’s Fred Hurley reporting “we have continued to work with the DEP to determine the discharge standards that will be placed on the Department’s Fish Culture Stations. These have been somewhat of a moving target.”

In 2000, another Hatchery Commission, on which I served, spent $500,000 creating plans for each of DIF&W’s hatcheries to meet discharge standards within three years, as well as new production goals. I clearly remember the DEP’s Commissioner that time, David Littell, reporting his embarrassment that his agency had been ignoring DIF&W’s illegal waste water discharges for many years.

But controversy about the rules and standards continued, with DIF&W maintaining that the rules were unrealistic, costly, and unnecessarily restrictive. And to give all parties proper credit, both agencies got together at that point to try to work through the problems and issues.

In 2002 Maine voters approved a $7 million bond issue for DIF&W’s hatcheries, about half of which was used for enhanced wastewater treatment. In 2004, the department issued a report that as a result of renovations, “Estimates are that production will increase from 250,000 pounds of fish annually to 500,000 pounds of fish annually.”

That never happened. Today they’re producing about 350,000 pounds of fish each year. Nor did the enhanced wastewater treatment bring DIF&W into compliance with state and federal discharge laws.

Shortly after that 2002 approval of the $7 million bond issue, the Hatchery Task Force issued its final report and recommendations after three years of work.  In addition to detailed recommendations and plans for enhanced water treatment at each facility, the recommendations included a call for an additional $500,000 in the hatchery’s annual budget to facilitate increased production. That didn’t happen.

By 2005, the $7 million had been spent, and I reported in the SAM News that, “Many improvements, including new oxygenation systems, will be completed by the end of the month. New discharge treatment systems are under contract for construction and will be completed by June 30, 2005. And the Emden Rearing Station renovation project will go out to bid this month.”

The latter project was the most significant improvement and upgrade of a hatchery facility that we’ve been able to make in the last two decades and, in addition to the new oxygen systems, is responsible for most of the increased production of fish.

But our hopes that the discharge problems would be – well, discharged – were unfounded.

In March of 2010, the DEP’s Board of Environmental Protection fined DIF&W $35,960 for a lengthy list of law violations including unlicensed discharges of pollutants. The fine was suspended pending completion of a detailed list of improvements that had to be completed by December 1, 2010.

A time line for hatchery improvements was agreed upon by the two state agencies. In response to my questions later that year, a DEP officials told me DIF&W had met “most of the deadlines.”

DIF&W spent $1.1 million to comply with the DEP consent agreement, using funds from a 2008 bond issue. Another $900,000 of that bond was spent on other water quality improvements at the agency’s fish hatcheries.

So let’s jump forward a bit to 2013. DIF&W presented to the legislature, as part of its zero based budgeting process, a report on fish hatcheries and stocking, noting that “Forty percent of cold water fisheries in Maine are dependent on supplemental stocking from our hatchery system.”

The major problem cited in this report was this: “The costs to remove exceedingly small amounts of suspended phosphorus are cost prohibitive. Estimates are 10’s of millions (of dollars) for the eight existing hatchery facilities.”

To bolster its case, DIF&W noted that, “The phosphorus limit of 0.035 mg/l is not required by any other state in our US EPA Ecoregion VIII (Maine to Wisconsin). The cost to maintain, operate, and sample the effluent create a burden that reduces the number of fish available to licensed fishermen and businesses that depend on sport fishing in Maine.”

The agency’s report continued: “Achieving the required effluent standards is impossible without cutting production back and raising fewer fish, despite spending 4-million dollars to build a state-of-the-art hatchery in Embden in 2005.

“The current phosphorus limit at the Palermo Hatchery is 197 pounds annually. After a $950,000 upgrade to the water treatment facility, the hatchery still exceeds its annual limit. The only practical way to remain in compliance is to reduce the number of fish raised in the hatchery.

As required by the zero based budgeting process, DIF&W’s report presented a solution to this problem. “The Department demonstrates a social and economic benefit to the state of Maine that justifies allowing flexibility at these facilities to meet increasingly stringent phosphorus requirements.”

Two specific ways to resolve the issue were suggested. The first was to “designate our hatcheries as Concentrated Aquatic Animal Production Facilities, a federal program that may provide some relief from the phosphorus requirements. Legislative action from the Governor may also provide relief.”

The second was to “coordinate with Maine’s DEP to develop a plan that allows for additional fish rearing capacity while ensuring that Maine’s water quality is adequately protected.”

Focusing on these two solutions to the problem, I recently interviewed Superintendent of Hatcheries Todd Langevin. Here’s what I learned.

Discharge licenses for half of DIF&W’s hatchery facilities have been achieved, but some licenses at other facilities have now expired. “We are maintaining the status quo,” said Todd. “It is not clear if we have problems in the other facilities.” He also told me that new nutrient rules might be coming from the DEP.

The first solution, involving the federal program, is apparently moot. Todd called it a “questionable gray area” since the state has accepted the authority to administer water quality rules. The Governor took no action on this.

Without question, DIF&W’s hatcheries are producing the highest quality fish in their history. Whether they will be able to continue to produce as many fish as they do today, without costly upgrades to meet water quality discharge standards, remains an open question, as it has for more than two decades.

Long gone are plans to produce more fish.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.