By Dr. Robert Wasserstrom

Matthew Bernier is a marine habitat resource specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Maine Field Station in Orono. Courtney Cease and I interviewed him last week about NOAA’s Community-based Restoration Program. This program could become a lifeline for Camden to address severe flooding, rising seas, and declining ocean fisheries due to climate change.

Question: NOAA just received a large amount of money through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. What’s that money for?
Answer: The Infrastructure Act provides $491 million for coastal resiliency over five years to restore marine, estuarine, coastal, or Great Lakes ecosystem habitat. This includes constructing or protecting ecological features that protect coastal communities from flooding or coastal storms. The Act also provides $400 million for restoring fish passage by removing in-stream barriers and providing technical assistance to states, local governments, and other organizations.

Q: Why is fish passage so important?
A: Alewives, shad, rainbow smelt and other species spawn in our rivers and lakes. In the ocean, they feed commercially important ground fish like haddock. And that becomes an economic issue very quickly. Think about the restaurant that serves haddock and the waitress who’s trying to support her kids.

Q: The Megunticook River is only 3.5 miles long. How much of a contribution can it make to the marine habitat?
A: The Megunticook River was modified over the years for industrial purposes that used it mostly as a storm water ditch. That need no longer applies. For a long time, it was assumed that restoring the Megunticook was impossible. But that’s not true. It could be very productive. In Brooksville, for example, one small coastal lake, Walker Pond, has an annual run of 300,000 to 400,000 adult alewives. That’s a big contribution to local fisheries.
Imagine what would happen if the Megunticook were restored to allow fish passage. You could have seals in the harbor, like there were 20 years ago. More whale and porpoise sightings in Penobscot Bay. Tourists would come to see them and watch the fish swim up into the river. It would draw more visitors to the town.

Q: Let’s talk about infrastructure. Why do we need the upgrades?
A: We have to start by recognizing that climate change is real. It’s already happening in Camden. The sea level has risen by more than 6 inches over the past century. The ocean is getting warmer, which means that storms bring more water. Camden’s infrastructure — the sea wall, the dams, roads, bridges, and culverts, even Harbor Park — weren’t built for today’s climate. We need to be realistic and build for the future. We can’t party like it’s 1899.

Q: What about the Montgomery Dam?
A. Montgomery Dam restricts fish from their natural spawning grounds and poses a significant flood risk to the village. Without it, nearby property owners might even be outside the flood plain and pay lower insurance rates.
I think that Montgomery Dam removal should be considered integral to a new seawall project. NOAA funding could be used to remove the dam and update the seawall at the same time. Integrating these projects would save the town a lot of time and money in project design and management, permitting, bidding, and construction.

Q: Harbor Park is a touchy subject. It was designed by Frederick Olmsted’s firm and has historical significance. Wouldn’t this project degrade that legacy?
A: A central idea in Olmsted’s work was to design with nature, not in spite of it. If Olmsted’s successors had known that seas were going to rise, they would have built a higher sea wall. A new wall can certainly follow the same design principles to preserve their original intent.
Camden will have full control over decision-making while NOAA can help with technical assistance and financial support. For example, we can assist in finding the same stone that was used originally and incorporate it into a new wall. We can also ensure that natural falls will remain and design a fish passage that works with it.

Q: Do you have any final words for us?
A: Camden is an excellent candidate for NOAA’s support. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Camden residents to reset their relationship to the Megunticook River, to make it another natural asset in their rich environment. Think of restoring the river as an addition to the natural beauty of the Camden Hills, Camden Harbor and Megunticook Lake.

Nature-like fishway built by NOAA last year in Brooksville.

 

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.

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