Momentum is building behind a long-term plan to remove downtown dams and build fish passage structures on the remaining dams on the Megunticook River.

While discussions over the past year in Camden have focused on construction, repair and removal options for the Montgomery Dam, fish passage cannot be built there, unless there's a plan to open the entire river and Lake Megunticook to migratory fish.

The cost could be in the area of $5 million for the long-term restoration of the river's natural environment and added fish passage. The promised benefits include lowering flood risk in the downtown area, improved water quality, decreased costs for dam and seawall maintenance and repair, and the advent of fish runs, a new attraction for visitors.

Nearly 90 people heard presentations July 30 by a biologist and expert on fish restoration, and an engineer with InterFluve, the company that conducted a feasibility study on options for the Montgomery Dam. These options include rebuilding, lowering and removing the dam, and possibly rerouting the river's 75-foot channel from the dam to Camden Harbor. This 200-year-old dam is located behind Main Street businesses overlooking Camden Harbor, and its waterfall has long been a popular scenic feature in the downtown business district. The dam removal option is favored by InterFluve and some town officials.

Presenter Nate Gray, a biologist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, acquainted the audience with the life cycles of alewives and blueback herring. A 28-year DMR veteran, Gray has been working on bolstering Maine's diminished population of alewives and herring. The alewife restoration effort on the Kennebec River has seen great success since the removal of the Edwards Dam 20 years ago. Decades ago, DMR would vacuum up 120,000 alewives from the river downstream and truck them up-river to spawning grounds to keep the population going. Now, the alewife population in the Kennebec runs between 3 million and 6 million, Gray said. He is also involved in a long-term fish passage restoration project on the Sebasticook River.

Gray commented on the presence of alewives and other fish in Camden Harbor, captured in photographs and on film by Select Board member Alison McKellar and filmmaker and Lincolnville Selectman Josh Gerritsen. McKellar has avidly promoted the environmental benefits of fish passage and dam removal since introducing these ideas to board members in late 2017. She has persisted in the face of substantial skepticism that fish were ever able to swim up the river.

Gray said the fish seen in Camden Harbor are the “strays,” looking for attractive spawning grounds other than those sought by the majority of their species. He commented that once fish passage is opened on a river, stocking it with river herring for one full life cycle, which includes females each carrying as many as 100,000 eggs, has never failed.

Gray called alewives and river herring "keystone species," and said the overall result of restoring a keystone species to a waterway is enrichment of the entire watershed environment. Herring are eaten by everything from bacteria to whales, he said. Years ago, people stopped in their tracks when an eagle was sighted at Benton Falls on Sebasticook River, he said, and now there's a population of 60 to 80 eagles there.

His presentation attracted many questions. When asked about the effect of alewives and herring on existing fish in Lake Megunticook, Gray said the existing fish would be well-fed. Responding to a question about whether commercial harvesting would change the recreational character of the river, Gray said that was a long way off for Camden. Harvesting is limited to adult fish swimming upstream from May 1 to June 6. He also compared dam removal, which creates fish passage, to installing fish passage structures. Dam removal creates a river, and requires no maintenance, he said. Fish passage structures require cleaning, maintenance, opening and closing — forever. More than a third of the audience left the meeting after Gray's presentation.

After Gray, Mike Burke, an engineer with InterFluve, reviewed the Montgomery Dam feasibility study released earlier this year. The study examines the impact of the Montgomery and Knox Mill dams on downtown flood risk, showing all three marginally increase the 100-year flood risk. It investigates the options of rebuilding, lowering and removing Montgomery Dam and compares short- and long-term costs for each option. The report looks at evidence that the river took a different path to the harbor before the dam was built, the amount and composition of silt buildup behind the dam and fish passage options.

Burke explained that the least costly way to create fish passage is to take dams down. He presented evidence that the Megunticook River once flowed to the harbor through what is now the lower path area in Harbor Park. He reviewed InterFluve's recommendation, stated in the report's executive summary, that removal of the Montgomery Dam, combined with “channel restoration,” or a “pool and weir” fish passage structure, is the best option to improve the environment, reduce flood risk, increase resilience to climate change, and enable fish passage. Because of the dam's elevation of 24 .5 feet feet above sea level, even if it is removed, a fish passage structure at least 15 feet long will be needed, he said.

During a short question period after the two-hour presentation, Burke stated the obvious, that fish passage cannot be built at the Montgomery Dam without removing or modifying the remaining dams upriver.

Chip Laite asked for a thumbnail calculation of the total cost for the whole project. McKellar countered the question by talking about the costs of maintaining existing dams over many years, and Laite's question was not answered during the meeting.

Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell confirmed that town officials are firmly committed to keeping the East, West and Seabright dams, which are believed to maintain water levels in Lake Megunticook and the river. She emphasized that the cost of maintaining the six town-owned dams as is, is high. The town is facing close to a $1 million in status quo repairs to the dams in the next five years, she said. Town officials had hoped that this cost would be spread over 10 years, she said, but in fact, the town has been dealing with expensive emergency repairs on the dams.

Select Board Chairman Bob Falciani emphasized that the InterFluve report examines the feasibility of the options the town has. He said the next step for the town will be designs for potential options, and there will be many more discussions. "At the end of the day, this is a town decision," he said.

The option of removing Montgomery Dam and the pond behind the dam worries Tom Rothwell, owner of The Camden Deli. The Main Street restaurant is built over the Megunticook River, and features a first-story seating area with floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding glass doors with a view of the pool and waterfall. During Burke's presentation, Rothwell tried several times to ask about how the pool behind the dam would be affected by lowering or removing the dam, but was asked to wait until the presentation was finished. After hearing that the pool would be smaller if the dam were lowered, and would disappear if the dam were removed, Rothwell said, “Once we do this, the beauty is gone. It's an eyesore.”

After the meeting, Rothwell said he had a lot of concerns, and felt he was not being listened to. He commented that the waterfall behind Main Street is one of the town's most beautiful, and most photographed features. He predicted that, “It will be a huge impact on our economy if we get rid of that waterfall.”

Meg Quijano, owner of The Smiling Cow gift shop, also built over the river, said dealing with climate change and environmental needs was the most important issue. At the same time, she was looking for answers. She said she saw that decisions about the dams would affect many people, and was not sure if residents were aware of what was being discussed. “We have to be careful about making decisions that affect so many people,” she said.

In response to questions after the meeting, Caler-Bell said the purpose of what might be a $5 million long-term project is to prepare Camden for the future effects of climate change, including sea-level rise and storm surges.

The town is planning to use $50,000 in new grant money to develop designs for the Montgomery Dam options. She has spoken to library trustees about the option where the dam is removed and the river is redirected through the low area in Harbor Park and fish passage is installed. She said the trustees understand it is not logical to keep rebuilding the seawall around the lower perimeter of Harbor Park, as that area is now flooding with higher frequency.

"Constantly rebuilding the seawall in that area is not respecting that conditions are changing," she said. "It's foolish to rebuild over and over again."

She said the town has applied for a large federal grant to study options for removing two privately owned dams on the Knox Mill properties in downtown Camden, and building fish passage on the East, West and Seabright dams, which will remain on the river. She said the town is in talks with Matt Orne, owner of the Knox Mill property, and he is open to all the options, she said, including turning ownership of the dams over to the town. She said the town is working with InterFluve on a needed repair to the West Dam, to ensure that the repair will keep fish passage options open.

Concerns about the beauty of the area will be addressed in the designs, she said, adding that her understanding is that the designs will honor the aesthetic of the area, no matter what options are chosen.