CAMDEN — The solution to the controversy over the future of Montgomery Dam may be not to eliminate it, but to lower it by about three feet.

This was part of an ambitious plan for the harbor presented to a select group of invited stakeholders and a few members of the press Friday, Sept. 16 at the American Legion Hall in Camden. It includes a massive new fish ladder, a two-tier new seawall that would involve changes to Harbor Park and removal of ledge in the upper pool to maintain waterfalls. Designer Stephen Mohr predicted the seawall work alone could cost $3 million, though it was noted at the meeting that some of this could be paid for through grants and other funding awarded to the town.

Mohr & Seredin’s design concept for Camden includes a fish ladder, raised seawall and lowered Montgomery Dam. Courtesy of Tony Grassi/Stephen Mohr Kim Cornwall

Camden residents Tony Grassi and his wife, Sally, independently contracted with the Portland landscape architecture firm Mohr & Seredin to design the plan with help from Camden engineering firm Gartley & Dorsky. Mohr & Seredin is the Portland-based firm that did the American Boathouse project.

The work is not related to the work of the town’s newly formed Megunticook River Advisory Committee or the consultant — FB Environmental — the town has hired to oversee its controversial Megunticook River project, but Grassi said he plans to offer this plan to them.

He said in the meeting that he was sure that this was not going to end up being the final design and that changes would be made as it was discussed. He stated the goal of offering it is to help in fostering productive conversations moving forward.

“We believe that we have a plan that would be acceptable to regulators and federal funders, and that it would also preserve the aesthetics of the falls,” Grassi said in a written statement. “The design would preserve a great deal of the Montgomery Dam, it would maintain a pond at the old mill site, and it would preserve the river flow south toward the Camden Public Landing.”

The plan includes the construction of a fish passage with stone walls on either side rising up in steps, or small pools, to the Montgomery Dam. It would also have a stone mouth extending into the harbor.

This would “permit alewives, smelt, salmon, trout and elvers to make their way up the 21-foot-high ledge to the pond above the dam. From there, the fish migration can proceed upriver to Lake Megunticook if the relic dams are removed and fish passages are built around the Seabright, East and West dams,” as stated in the accompanying materials.

“A significant portion of the Montgomery Dam would remain,” Grassi noted in his written statement. “Only about three vertical feet would be removed from a portion of the dam at the very top. The main flow of the river would pass over the central ledges, with the highest flows also spilling out to the south toward the Public Landing. A small stream would be maintained year-round through the fish passage. No equipment or human intervention would be required to maintain this system,” he said.

The design would also “raise the existing seawall from the Montgomery Dam over to the schooner landing by four feet.”

Mohr presented the seawall rising in two levels in Harbor Park and this would mean changes to the grading of the park, but the design was drawn with careful attention to the historical significance of the park and the original vision for it.

This shows the Montgomery Dam, proposed fish ladder and seawall from above. Courtesy of Tony Grassi/Stephen Mohr. Kim Cornwall

Camden Deli owner Tom Rothwell asked for specifics on what was involved in removing the ledge from the upper pool near his property.

Mohr said there could be no blasting due to the proximity of the buildings up there, but that the work could be accomplished with drilling and hydraulic hammers, and even then, they would be careful to measure the vibration to protect the properties.

He also pointed out that this was only a conceptual plan and if the work was done, he would likely not be involved since he is semi-retired.

Rothwell asked if they were assuming the property owners would give permission for this work. Mohr acknowledged that nothing would be done on private property without permission.

Rothwell said there used to be a beautiful waterfall with water flowing over the rock facing the harbor, but this design would mean a view of a “man-made” fish ladder. He said if the town simply invested money into maintaining the dam, the water could fall over the rocks that way again.

Mohr acknowledged that he had wanted a more natural fish passage design, but the only workable solution, as he worked on it, was a constructed ladder.

The project is not only aimed at allowing fish access but preventing flooding and dealing with the rising waters that will be associated with climate change in coming years.

Grassi argues in his written statement, “without some form of naturalized fish passage, Camden would remain ineligible for climate resiliency funding under the federal Infrastructure and Jobs Act of 2021.

“These funds could be used to address flooding and other problems throughout the entire watershed. Without them, town residents will likely face the prospect of having to repair future flood damage along the river by increasing local taxes. In 2019 and 2021, consulting firms hired by the town government recommended removing the Montgomery Dam.”

He went on, “Last month, Camden received a $1.6 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for Megunticook River Watershed Fish Passage and Flood Prevention Final Designs and Permitting. This grant will enable the town to complete a detailed plan for flood resiliency from the harbor to the lake.”

Robert Wasserstrom sent out an email last week with an invitation to the press to interview Grassi. It stated, “This event is not open to the news media.” When questioned about this in an email, Wasserstrom said The Camden Herald was welcome to attend.

Camden residents including Tom Rothwell, front, and Ray Andresen, center, of Save the Dam Falls look at a vision of the possible future of the Montgomery Dam Sept. 16 at the American Legion Hall. Photo by Daniel Dunkle