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Only Steps Forward Auburn must speak strongly about its riverfront

By Jonathan P. LaBonté

Mayor of Auburn

If I told you there was a process underway, which will be wrapped up in the next two years, to determine what can happen for the next 30 years on the Little Androscoggin River in Downtown Auburn, how would you respond?

Would you wonder who was making the decisions? Do you know where your elected officials and city staff stand on how your kids or grandkids should be able to use this resource for recreation or economic development?

Auburn and our sister city Lewiston tout the importance of the riverfront for growing our community and improving quality of life, but you’ve probably heard more about the debate to replace the canopies at Festival Plaza than this narrow window we have to advocate for use of the river.

The process under way is the relicensing of the Lower Barker Dam, the technical name for the dam that sits behind the Barker Mill housing complex owned by Auburn Housing Authority.

The dam and the Upper Barker Dam just upstream are among several hydroelectric facilities on the Little Androscoggin River that are owned by a company based in Canada. Unlike when the dams were first constructed to create jobs locally with cheap power, the power now leaves the community and goes onto the power grid.

In addition to the two dams on the Little Androscoggin in New Auburn that will be seeking new licenses in the next few years to operate on the river, there are three major dams on the main Androscoggin River. The Gulf Island and Deer Rips Dams just secured licenses to operate over the next two generations. In the next decade, the Monty Hydro and the connected canal system will be up for review.

While it may be a bit wonky, these rivers in our community are actually owned by us, the public. Federal and state laws allow private companies to construct and operate dams on these rivers if they demonstrate certain public benefits for the community through recreation and economic growth.

The public, through local governments, is invited to participate in that process, as are other advocacy groups. Given my experience over the last decade working on environmental issues, I have helped to rally an impressive group of partners to assist Auburn in fighting for maximum local benefit for use of the Little Androscoggin.

This includes local groups like the Androscoggin Land Trust and their leadership in developing the Androscoggin Greenway through parks and trails that line our riverfront.

But it also includes national organizations like American Whitewater that see the potential here to create whitewater waves and seasonal whitewater that could attract recreational tourists.

While much of the last couple decades in Lewiston-Auburn has been spent growing access to views of the river, its real potential must include not just looking at it, but also using it and experiencing it. This could be in a canoe or kayak or even walking along the shores casting a line for fish.

Should there be enough water for paddlers to enjoy the downtown riverfront throughout the summer? With limited access to the shoreline now, how should improved fishing access for anglers or local youth programs be funded: by the city it or those profiting from water power? Should water flows be sufficient to support restoration of fish species that currently struggle to survive along the corridor?

If the community comes together and speaks strongly about its riverfront, the day won’t be long off when the summer weekends are filled with people enjoying lunch from Rolly’s overlooking paddlers below. Or live music along a new park behind Fire House Grille has a backdrop of fly fishermen casting their lines.

More use of the river. More visitors enjoying the outdoors in our backyard. More investment in our community. And the jobs and tax base that come with it.

If you’re interesting in river recreation or how the community can better use to river to improve quality of life, please reach out so we can get you involved.  As always, you can reach me by phone at 782-1174 or email


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