By Dr. Robert Wasserstrom

Like other members of Restore Megunticook, I’ve been circulating a petition to let Camden residents decide our river’s future. We did this because a rival petition would throw democracy to the wind by cutting off discussion and forcing a hasty vote in June.
An early vote would deprive us of the chance to understand what’s at stake here and how to reach the best result. It could produce a quick, bad decision that will cost Camden taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair flood damage and other problems.
Standing outside the Post Office or at the transfer station, I learned quite a lot about what’s on people’s minds. Here are a few of their questions.

Q: What is this about? I don’t have enough information yet.
A: If we’re forced to vote in June, you’ll probably never get that information. A small group has already made up their minds about what they want: keeping the Montgomery Dam the way it is at all costs. Our petition allows the Select Board to hire a top-level engineering firm that will look at all the options. Then we can decide what’s best for us, probably later this year.

Q: Don’t you just want to get rid of the Montgomery Dam?
A.: That’s one option, but there are others. For example, the feasibility study done by Inter-Fluve last year studied three possibilities, not one: removal, modification, and repair. Further engineering studies would examine these options in detail and tell us what they’d cost.

Q: But the Inter-Fluve report said that the Montgomery Dam doesn’t cause flooding, didn’t it?
A: Montgomery Dam doesn’t cause flooding upriver, but it often floods the area immediately behind it. When the rain is bad enough, you and I pay two town employees — at any hour of the day or night — to open the dam and minimize the damage. This is not a good use of our money.

Q: Wouldn’t removing the dam destroy the waterfall?
A: No. There will always be a waterfall. The river drops 15 feet over bedrock into the harbor. It doesn’t need to go through the dam. Only its path might shift, for example, back to its historic bedrock channel.

Q: Isn’t the Montgomery Dam an important historical landmark?
A: The current dam was built in 1930 to generate electricity. Earlier structures were built on the same site. We agree that an historical marker should explain how the site was used. But the existing dam doesn’t “reflect in an outstanding manner the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or…represent the work of a master, or…possess high artistic values” – the criteria for preservation.

Q: Why is fish passage so important?
A: Federal grants give us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remove unnecessary obstructions in the river. These obstructions increase flood risk and make flooding worse when it happens. All of the grants require naturalized fish passage to Megunticook Lake — not to be confused with a concrete fish ladder bypassing Montgomery Dam.
If we miss this opportunity, Camden taxpayers will likely end up paying to remove the obstructions later. Not to mention rebuilding town property damaged by flooding due to climate change.
We’re not alone. More than 40 derelict dams have been removed in Maine. In the Penobscot River, natural passage for sea-run fish like alewives, Atlantic salmon and shad has been restored in 2,000 miles of river and streams. Naturalized passage also improves water quality and regenerates the river’s natural character and inhabitants — significant benefits for recreational users.

Q: How do we know that the Select Board will do the right thing?
A: Select Board members want to do what’s best for their community. But where sharp disagreements divide us, sometimes it’s hard for them to move forward. They need help.
That’s why we’ve asked them to appoint a Citizens Advisory Committee with knowledgeable, open-minded community leaders. This committee will make sure we get clear, comprehensible, transparent information. It will give us a forum to engage the Town’s expert consultants and express our views. And its recommendations will be included in the options presented by the Select Board to voters for their approval.

We urge board members to act soon. The longer they take to appoint the committee, the more difficult it will be to reach consensus about our best options. And if a vote is held in June, as some people want, the committee won’t have time to do its work. We’ll lose a unique opportunity to make our voices heard.
Dr. Robert Wasserstrom lives in Camden.

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.