River integral to ecosystem, even before it was harnessed as industrial revolution tool

The Megunticook River and the next hundred years

Posted:  Thursday, March 1, 2018 - 11:15am
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Growing up in Camden, I never thought much about the river that runs through our town, but before Camden was known for its brick buildings and beautiful boats, people were drawn to the area for the small but mighty stream called Megunticook.

Camden's first mill was erected in 1771 by William Minot, not long after the first settlers arrived. In fact, it was the river itself that had attracted many of Camden's first European inhabitants, and it served as the primary engine of economic development for roughly two centuries, turning water wheels that powered the production of everything from flour and textiles to anchors and gunpowder. At one point, Megunticook had 11 dams and at least 15 separate mills. You can read an account of all of them as observed in 1868 here. Today, we have six dams that remain intact (four of which belong to the town of Camden) and one that has been breached but is still visible and largely in place. The anticipated maintenance cost of just the town owned dams over the next 5-10 years is well over $500,000.

Although none of the dams are used to generate power, some of them still provide a valuable service. The East and West Dams for example, now owned by the town of Camden, hold back the water that creates our beloved Megunticook Lake, but it was industry and not recreation that fueled the initial enlarging of what was then known as Canaan Pond. In the early 1790's the need to store additional water for Molyneaux's sawmill and gristmill transformed the Pond into what we know today as Megunticook Lake, flooding hundreds of acres. I'm always curious to think about what treasures or clues of ancient civilizations might lie beneath the water.

This was of course long before the advent of photography and even predated most of Camden's landscape artists. The early settlers didn't have a lot of time for painting pictures in those days and instead got right to work leveraging the river's power by blasting bedrock, daming and rerouting the flow, and molding the landscape in more ways than have been possible to properly document. We do know of course that much of what makes Camden special was here long before our European ancestors arrived and that the river was an integral part of an ecosystem, even before it was harnessed as a tool of the industrial revolution.

My first clue came when I stumbled upon mention of alewives in the Camden town meeting notes from 1806, so I marched over to the Rockport town office (where the original records are kept) to investigate further. Sure enough, a request had been made to examine the possibility of requiring that the dam owners open up sluiceways to allow for the passage of alewives and other fish from the harbor to the "large pond above Molyneaux's mills". A committee was formed and there was mention of petitioning the state legislature to compel the dam owners to comply but it appears that nothing came of it in Camden.

The people of Camden at that time recognized the beginnings of the same problem that we still face today, and one that was recognized as a crisis in Maine throughout the 19th Century. Sea-run fish like salmon and alewives spend most of their lives in the ocean, but return to lakes and rivers to spawn. When they return inland after years at sea, they help to complete a cycle that has sustained life for thousands of years, carrying nutrients from the sea back to the land, fertilizing the soil, and providing nourishment to everything from otters to ospreys.

When dams are installed without fish passage, the natural cycle is broken.  Not only are sea run fish prevented from traveling upstream, but species such as native brook trout, which were once abundant, can't move up and down the river as temperatures and conditions change. Dams hold water back in impoundments, often causing sediment buildup and temperature rise that are incompatible with the needs of native species. Whereas unobstructed streams and lakes allow fish to pass between different areas depending on conditions, dams often send fish crashing down over rapids and block them from accessing suitable spawning habitat.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, by the late 1800s a state law was passed banning fishing in the entire Megunticook watershed, in a radical attempt to save what little was left of the rapidly dwindling native fish population. Shortly thereafter, perhaps recognizing the futility of preserving the native and wild fish populations, Camden changed tactics and requested a hatchery be funded by the State at the base of Megunticook Lake. From a recreational fishery standpoint, the strategy worked and fishing opportunities were greatly improved, but we never have succeeded in restoring the true biodiversity of the river that has given us so much. Today, most of the fish present in Megunticook Lake and River are non native species that are stocked annually.

There was a period when Megunticook was known to change colors according to the particular dyes that the tanneries and woolen mills were using that day, but today, the river no longer bears the most obvious signs of industrial abuse. Still, it is not the healthy river that the first settlers encountered. It is unable to sustain native and wild fish populations, it suffers from high bacteria levels (and remains on the State of Maine's list of impaired water bodies), and in some places is smothered in rising sediment levels trapped behind dams that long ago ceased to perform any useful function. We no longer need the river to power our sawmills and grist mills, but it is still an asset that will serve the community for centuries to come.

The suggestion of changing anything sometimes puts people on edge, especially in Camden where we are already blessed with so much that looks so nice, but we must remember that most of our town has been changing radically and consistently for over 200 years. Some of our dams (East Dam, West Dam, and Seabright) create elevated water levels that are essential to property values and recreation, and I don't believe dam removal makes sense, but we can preserve the aspects of the dams that we like, while studying the possibility of various types of fish passages and dam removal or modification in other places. Damariscotta put their fish ladder in around the same time that it was originally proposed in Camden (early 1800s) and it was recently renovated beautifully, now drawing thousands of visitors each year for the famous alewife runs.

As soon as I joined the Select Board, I began hearing about the dams and all the expenses that go along with them. They need to be inspected, insured, maintained, and adjusted; and I wanted to know more about each one. Some of them serve the purpose of maintaining a desirable water level that is elevated for recreational purposes, but some of them, like the town owned Montgomery Dam where the river enters the harbor, are today basically "aesthetic" in their purpose. Based on comments by a few residents, I embarked on an effort to research what other communities are doing with their aging dams, and I learned about all the environmental problems associated with the status quo (I recommend the documentary DamNation to learn more). When presented with a roughly $75,000 estimate to rebuild the concrete fish barricade that we call Montgomery Dam, I simply could not stomach the idea that Camden taxpayers would be paying to recreate something that is known to do environmental harm, and I proposed tabling the bid award until more information could be gathered. Most of my colleagues on the Select Board joined me in supporting an analysis of alternatives, but it is important to mention that I do not speak for anyone but myself.

Over the years, the outlet of the river has been dammed, channeled, twisted, and divided into all kinds of configurations with sluiceways, water wheels, and granite sea walls. If we are as smart as our ancestors who built the dams and changed them as their needs changed, we too will think carefully about what we want Megunticook River to do for us over the next hundred years. I believe we should invest in a healthy river that attracts abundant wildlife; in a river that attracts tourists not with a contrived concrete barricades and artificial waterfalls, but with a freely flowing river that tumbles over the natural ledge that exists there. What could be more beautiful than that? What could be more beautiful than the return of native fish runs and sustained wild brook trout populations to the Megunticook watershed?

Thankfully, a few very smart people with much knowledge in the field have also been interested in the topic. Most notably, I want to thank Jeff Senders, a Camden resident, Planning Board member, and environmental engineer, who has volunteered much time bringing together state and federal agencies as well as non profit organizations like the Nature Conservancy to assess our options. It has been quite heartening to learn that there are numerous funding opportunities to study our options further. Watch for a presentation at an upcoming Select Board meeting that will provide the public with a chance to ask questions and provide feedback.

Alison McKellar lives in Camden and is a Select Board member.