Regarding the Megunticook River restoration debate, one thing I think everybody can agree on is that people would like to know the cost. River restoration is a momentous and expensive initiative and people should know how it is likely to impact future taxes.  Fortunately the two studies done by Inter-Fluve do include cost estimates.  Those estimates are not perfect, but they do give us a good place to start.

The two Inter-Fluve studies to which I refer are the 2019 study of the Montgomery Dam area, and the 2020 study of the entire Megunticook watershed.  There are a total of five dams on the river plus two other “points of congestion” the studies examine.  For each of those there are various options considered.  The options include remove/keep the dams, different types of fishways, and different routes for the fishways.  I count a total of 23 options.  Costs for each of those are broken down into construction costs and ongoing repairs and maintenance costs over a 50 year lifespan, given various assumptions.  As you can imagine, it gets complicated very quickly.

In order to reduce the issue of “too much information” I developed a spreadsheet that shows the least expensive, and the most expensive, option for each dam.  Then it adds all of those together to get a range of the total costs for the entire project.  There is no way I can include the entire spreadsheet here, but I can give you the “bottom line” conclusions.

Using the Inter-Fluve cost estimates (I promise I didn’t make up any of the numbers myself), and using the “capitalized” method for recognizing lifetime maintenance costs (trust me, that is the best way), here are the ranges:

For Montgomery Dam, to rebuild the dam, but have no fishway, $525,000.  That is comprised of $225K construction costs plus $300K for 50 years of capitalized repairs and maintenance  costs. Again, note that this would include no fishway.

Options for Montgomery Dam that do include a fishway range from a low of $1,045,000 for “dam removal, restore channel” to a high of $1,600,000 for “dam rebuild plus pool and weir fishway.”

If you were masochistic enough to repeat this process of looking at the lowest and highest cost options for each dam, then add them all together, the range for the entire river would be $7,011,000 at the low end to $13,856,000 at the high end.

So, rounding off the edges, using the Inter-Fluve estimates, it will cost between seven and 14 million dollars to create a fishway from the harbor all the way to Lake Megunticook.

What we don’t know about the costs:

So far I have discussed the things we know about the costs.  Now let’s consider some of the things we clearly do not know on that subject.

Just estimates.  The Inter-Fluve report is very professionally done, and I am sure they made their best efforts to provide accurate cost estimates.  Still, they are engineering estimates, not bids from contractors.  Actual prices could be double, or maybe even half the engineering estimates.  We won’t know until we get there.

Inflation. In the two years since the initial estimates were done we have seen the highest inflation rates in 50 years.  It would not be unreasonable to increase our construction cost assumptions by 30%. If we did that, instead of costing $7M to 14M  the low/high range would increase to $9M to $18M.  If two more years pass before construction begins, prices could easily have increased 50% from the 2020, making the range $10M to $20M.

The Step Wall.  On the town website there are several drawings of what the waterfront would look like after the river was restored to its original channel.  Note that none of these include preserving Montgomery Dam, but setting that aside for now, there is another obvious issue.There is no mention of the cost of building such a wall.  All of the drawings show a large stone wall running alongside the river, basically running where lower Harbor Park is now.  The most recent rendering shows a big granite “stepped seawall” running all the way from the current sluiceway around to the boathouse. Certainly a wall of some sort is going to be needed to harden the waterfront against storm surge, but the issue is not discussed at all in the Inter-Fluve reports, and there is no discussion, or even a mention, of the cost of building them.    There are other issues — political and legal issues — with building anything in Harbor Park, but even if those could be overcome, the wall would be a major expense, and that should be accounted for.  To date, that accounting is nowhere to be found.

Federal and Grant Funding: The biggest question of all is, of course, how much would the federal government pay?  The Infrastructure Bill has passed, so, no matter what you think of federal spending, it is legitimate to ask, how much federal funding will the town receive?  Will there be full funding for the project, or will the town have to contribute matching funds?  If matching funds are required, will there be a cap on the town’s share?  Bottom line, how much would this project impact property taxes?  Camden’s taxpayers deserve to know this before they make a decision about the project.

This is not even an exhaustive list of project costs.  There are other items that I would call “potential” expenses.  Perhaps there should be another letter to discuss those, but this list gets the big, obvious items.  All of these items need to be addressed, and made available for public discussion, before Camden moves forward with this project.

One final note: in order to plan and estimate for the project, it will be very helpful if some of the uncertainty is eliminated. By voting to preserve the dam and waterfall, the planning can continue, knowing for certain what the plan for Montgomery Dam will be. The Montgomery Dam will be safe and secure for another generation.

Tom Zumwalt

The Save the Dam Falls Committee contributes “Dam Straight” columns concerning the preservation of the waterfall and Montgomery Dam. Their opinions are their own and do not reflect the editorial position of The Camden Herald.