Environmental questions raised about dam

By Susan Mustapich | Dec 11, 2017
Photo by: Susan Mustapich The falls on the Megunticook River, overlooking Camden Harbor, are enhanced by the Montgomery Dam, which now needs repair.

CAMDEN — The Select Board postponed bid selection Dec. 5 for a major repair to the Montgomery Dam, in order allow more time for discussion about environmental impacts.

The Montogomery Dam is in downtown Camden, behind the Smiling Cow and Camden Deli, at the top of the falls that overlook Camden Harbor. It is the last dam on the Megunticook River before it meets Penobscot Bay, or as Select Board member Alison McKellar pointed out, it is the first dam that stops fish from swimming upriver.

At the June town meeting, voters approved borrowing for infrastructure improvements, including up to $50,000 for the Montgomery Dam. The repair involves resurfacing the top of the concrete dam, and repointing the granite blocks along the sluiceway. The town of Camden solicited bids for the repair, and one bid was received from Knowles Industrial Services Corp., for repairs estimated to range from around $71,000 to $86,000.

McKellar asked for more time to consider the environmental impacts of the dam. She made it clear that her questions solely involved the Montgomery Dam, and did not include the East, West and Seabright dams that maintain water levels in Megunticook Lake and River.

She described the purpose of Montgomery Dam as aesthetic. Wastewater Superintendent David Bolstridge confirmed that this is the case. Board member Marc Ratner asked why the dam was built. Bolstridge explained the dam originally generated energy, but no longer does.

From an environmental perspective, the Montgomery Dam stops all fish passage, McKellar said. She would like to know more about the pros and cons of keeping the dam, before commiting to another 100 years of blocking fish passage. "There used to be alewives and salmon on all of these rivers," she said. "In 1806, the people of Camden petitioned the dam owners to install fish ladders, because people remembered what it was like when fish swam up there. That got tabled," she said.

Two hundred years later, the current Select Board has an opportunity to revisit this decision, according to McKellar. Before deciding to repair the Montgomery Dam, she asked for more time to consider the impact, and suggested the bid approval be tabled.

McKellar pointed out that there is a connection between dams, environmental damage to rivers, and an increase in pollutants in rivers that contributes to global warming. She asked if the river would still cascade over the rocks down to the harbor if the dam were removed. She also spoke about installing fish ladders on the upstream dams.

McKellar asked the board to consider what it can do to make the river healthier, and pointed out that the Megunticook is on a state list of impaired rivers.

Board Chairman John French pointed out that Camden voters approved the repair at town meeting.

Board member Robert Falciani pointed out that any discussion of removing the dam would have to involve the cost, which could be significant.

Board member Jenna Lookner mentioned economics in the downtown area built around the waterfall, including the name of the business Camden Falls Gallery. She supported the idea of a discussion about the Montgomery Dam that included stakeholders in the community.

Lookner said she supported restoring a natural fish run, and cited the elver run in Damariscotta, saying it could be a tourist attraction.

There was also mention of soils that build up behind dams, contaminants in those soils from industrial uses, such as mills that operated on the Megunticook River, and further information needed on soil buildup behind the Montgomery Dam.

Board members voted 4 to 1 to table a decision on the bid award to repair the Montgomery Dam, stating that there was time to further discuss the matter, as the repair is scheduled for spring 2018. French cast the sole vote against tabling the bid award. Board members agreed that the repairs can be rebid, if needed, without delaying the work.

Comments (3)
Posted by: Alison S McKellar | Dec 12, 2017 22:56

Thanks for the story.

The town is absolutely in the process of seeking outside advice, but we are still in the exploratory stage discussing with consultants and stakeholders who are willing to volunteer their time. In my opinion, we don't have enough information yet to make a case for spending money on a study, but I agree that the ideal thing would be a comprehensive look at the health of the river and the prospects for restoration of native species habitats.

At this point, we are looking at spending roughly $80,000 (and thousands more into perpetuity on smaller repairs, inspections, monitoring, maintenance, etc) to maintain the status quo which is a dam that has a debatable aesthetic benefit and a not so debatable environmental downside.

The next step in my mind is to discuss with abutting property owners certain variables that may not be immediately apparent to the rest of us since they own the land that the river runs over. Perhaps there is a modification to the dam that could be beneficial for the property owners while also having ecological benefits in terms of fish passage, etc.

It's an exciting topic though and it's been great to hear from interested people. Feel free to email me at amckellar@camdenmaine.gov with comments.


Posted by: Michael Mullins | Dec 12, 2017 11:56

What I would advocate is bringing in a river management and restoration consultant such as https://www.riverdesigngroup.com/ to come in and help the Town develop a plan for improving the ecology of the river all the way from the harbor to the lake.  I don't know the cost of such an evaluation, but it seems to me the Town should have a plan for the whole waterway before making a decision on the Montgomery Dam.  You'd hate to have a plan to bring back the salmon, alewives, and elver later on and realize the $80,000 could have been better spent...


Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Dec 11, 2017 15:01

I hope the town fathers vote to rebuild the dams, one dam at a time, to spread the expense and ease the tax burden to the Camden populous.  

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