By Susan Reider

Before my husband and I retired to Camden, we owned an international consulting practice that specialized in community-driven development. We often helped communities sort “wants” from “needs” when deciding how to invest their resources and plan for the future.

That approach might help Camden right now. Climate change-induced extreme weather events are likely to increase. Our coastal village is under threat from both the sea and the river if we don’t make good choices soon.

Our diverse group, Restore Megunticook, sees this as an opportunity to turn the river into a valuable asset for our town. We believe everyone can still enjoy seeing the river spill dramatically down over 15 feet of bedrock at the head of Camden Harbor, as it’s done for thousands of years. Everyone can also watch the alewives and other species once more make their valiant ascent to the lake. Where else do the mountains and a river meet the sea at the same spot? Property values and our tourism-based economy most likely will benefit if we also take precautions against climate change.

So let’s apply the “wants versus needs” logic to this issue. At the Town-sponsored information session in Harbor Park last October, we saw flags in the ground indicating how far sea levels might rise in the near future. We see alarming evidence of rising tides regularly now, with gravel and debris washing on the Park’s lower walkway. I hope the Library Board and the Select Board can agree on a plan to protect and enhance our beloved Harbor Park. I also hope we can agree that this is a need.

But what about the river? The Maine Climate Council tells us that torrential rains have become a regular fact of life here. How do we protect ourselves? Only days after that Harbor Park information session, a Halloween storm dumped 5.5 inches on us, causing serious damage. The most reasonable option is to remove four relic dams between Seabright (near Shirttail Point) and the sea, allowing the river to flow freely. Added to other flood control measures, this may save our downtown public and private property from major losses. Isn’t this a need?

By happy coincidence, last year’s federal infrastructure legislation has provided significant new funding for climate resilience in coastal towns like ours. Some of these grants are contingent upon restoring fish migration patterns between the sea and Lake Megunticook. Naturalized passage will enhance the ecological value of the river and improve freshwater quality. A combination of grants, possibly amounting to millions of dollars, could pay for all or most of the cost. If we lose this opportunity, there’s no guarantee we’ll have another chance. So, we’d eventually have to pay for flood damage and future remediation ourselves. Another need?

Some people want to save the Montgomery Dam at all costs. They have aesthetic and historical reasons. But the dam, configured to generate electricity, blocks fish migration and precludes the river from returning to its natural state. It also requires taxpayer money to maintain. Want or need?

These are the choices that Camden residents must make. Some people want to force a vote on retaining the Montgomery Dam at the town meeting in June. We believe that this would be a mistake. So that the town can make the best choices, we need more information and a chance to share our concerns and ideas. Other towns in Maine have made choices about dam removal and river restoration and we can learn from their experiences. That’s why we’re circulating a petition now to keep the discussion going, not shut it off prematurely.

We have also strongly urged the Select Board to appoint a Citizens Advisory Committee, composed of objective and knowledgeable community leaders, to oversee this process. They will gather expert information, hear from Camden residents, and work with scientists and engineers to come up with an acceptable plan. This plan should address all of our needs and as many of our wants as can be accommodated. This way, the people of Camden can choose our own future and vote on it when we’re ready.

Camden prides itself on being the Jewel of the Maine coast. We have a responsibility to preserve that jewel for future generations. We can do that by working together in good faith to do what is right for all of us, instead of placing wants before needs.

Susan Reider lives in Camden with her husband and her dog. She was a Senior Partner in the Terra Group, an international consulting firm.

Restore Megunticook is written by a diverse group of Camden residents who want to face climate threats responsibly and are committed to a civil community conversation about the ecology of the Megunticook River. Their views do not reflect the editorial position of The Camden Herald.

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