‘We are a watershed that needs to make decisions at a watershed level if we want to be smart about it’

May 1 deluge, citizens’ DEP petition, extreme lake levels convince Camden Select Board to take action

Wed, 05/10/2023 - 8:15am

    CAMDEN — One day following an historic storm that deluged the Midcoast with 6.25-plus inches of rain, destroying roads and submerging properties throughout Maine watersheds, the topic at the Camden Select Board May 2 meeting was predominantly water, and how to control its path and force. That included a lengthy conversation about the Dept. of Environmental Protection’s involvement . 

    While flooding was fresh in everyone’s mind, the conversation swung from too much water to too little water, how to maintain acceptable levels in Norton Pond, Megunticook Lake and River, and the watershed’s end point, the Montgomery Dam mill pond at the head of Camden Harbor. 

    At issue included an upcoming DEP hearing concerning water levels in the Montgomery Dam impoundment. (See attached PDF for the petition)

    In December, 14 owners of property around the Montgomery Dam requested that the DEP to establish a water level regime there. They asked the state agency to supersede the Town of Camden to, “restore the mill pond created by the Montgomery Dam to its traditionally observed level of water flowing over the entire spillway year-round.”

    Sara Eastler, of Rockport, filed the petition Dec. 1 on behalf of Victoria Lynn Paigutt, Tannery Lane LLC and Tannery Lane Corporation (David Dickey), LDOH LLC (Frank O’Hara), Stuart Smith, Heath LLC (Alex Logan), Arthur and Gregory Kirkland, Pinnacle Property Development (Chris Nolan), Meg Quijano, Larry Weatherholtz, Thomas and Angela Rothwell, Smith Family Trust (Sam Smith), Camden Harbor Properties (Lee Montgomery).

    They said that as property owners, their, “livelihoods are inextricably linked to the beauty and existence of the Montgomery Dam and its mill pond.”

    Camden’s town government had been irresponsible in closing the sluice gate, the petition said. When it is open, the water drains from under the buildings and creates a swamp-like habitat, with breeding insects. There is also evidence, they said, that a person camped beneath the buildings, leaving trash.

    The DEP agreed to meet the request and two weeks ago, the agency circulated notice to the public, inviting those who want to participate as a party to the proceeding to file with the DEP for intervenor status. 

    Intervener status provides, ‘the right to offer testimony and evidence, participate in cross-examination of other parties, and have the responsibility to attend pre-hearing conferences and abide by all procedural orders.’ the DEP said.

    “A petition shall be granted if it demonstrates that the petitioner is or may be, or is a member of a class which is or may be, substantially and directly affected by the proceeding, or that the petitioner is any other agency of federal, state, or local government,” the DEP said, in its notice. (See attached PDF for the DEP notice)

    Citizens may also submit comments and speak at hearings, even if they are not granted intervener status.

    Does Camden want the DEP to set a water level regime?

    At the outset of the discussion May 2, Town Manager Audra Caler described the ongoing task of maintaining water levels to the public’s satisfaction.

    In order to keep water levels high along the river and at the mill pond  at certain times of the summer affects what happens at the lake, she said. That integration involves opening and closing dams along the river, dams that were built more than two centuries ago. The Montgomery Dam itself was first built in 1771

    This was no more immediately felt than May 1, when yet another historic storm pounded the Midcoast. Camden Public Works Director Dave St. Laurent said days later that approximately 4 inches of that rain within a two-hour window. The streams feeding Norton Pond and Megunticook Lake and River filled rapidly, causing water levels to rise everywhere.

    At the May 2 meeting, Camden business owner Ibby Wincklhofer described the aftermath. She and her husband, Toby, own Lake City Floats, and have 185 customers on Norton Pond, Megunticook Lake and River. 

    She questioned the town’s management of the dams during the storm, recounting extensive damage to property, as well as loon nests that were destroyed.

    “All of the floats that we had already set up picked up their moorings and floated off, causing the ramps to fall into the water,” she said.

    That requires new float abutment set-ups or rebuilds, she said.

    “This was a huge loss that was preventable by lowering the water before the rain event,” she said. “We understand that the six inches was not predicted, but three to four was.”

    Wincklhofer continued: “We’d like to know how the town plans on preventing this in the future? We’ve been running this business for 4 years and since the control of the damn changed hands we’ve had nothing but trouble with high and low water levels. This has never been the case over the last 20 years or more.

    “We can’t run our business with such inconsistent water levels. This has set us back and as of right now we will not have our parking lot free for the towns people to use come Memorial Day.

    “This is a concern for us as business owners as well as for our customers. We want to continue providing this service as it had been for over the last 40 years.

    “We can't help but wonder if there are ulterior motives behind the people in charge of the dam and the people who want the dams gone.”

    Wincklhofer urged the Select Board to improve its water level controls with better dam control.

    In a May 3 phone conversation with St. Laurent, he said the May 1 storm took everyone by surprise with its intensity.

    “We saw the rain was coming, but nobody thought five to six inches of it,” he said.

    He spoke of the strength and volume that water has, and noted it is not a matter of turning it on and off, that it takes time to mediate its levels and flows. To properly manage the water that coursed through the lakes and river on May 1, dams would have needed opening at least two weeks prior, he said.

    Three weeks prior to the storm, he said he had been asked to bring the lake level up because its waters were receding. At that point, he closed the two dams, East and West, which are at the foot of Megunticook Lake, beneath Molyneaux Road near the intersection of Beaucaire Ave. There, the lake water begins its descent toward Camden Harbor through Megunticook River.

    Before the storm, he had opened the Montgomery Dam.

    On Sunday, April 30, as the storm was beginning, St. Laurent opened the West Dam gate. On Monday morning, May 1, he went to open the East Dam but and found a slipped mechanism. It took three people to fix that, and one hour later beneath the pouring rain, they got it open.

    They also discovered that during storm a trash gate located above the East and West dams itself became clogged with a kayak, a canoe and debris, all plugging the flowing water, and contributing to the lake’s rising water levels. Meanwhile, the National Weather Service warned the public that while the storm was winding down, water runoff  into feeder streams and rivers would continue contributing to rising water levels over the next several days.

    The town, with its multiple dams on the lake and river, is responsible for ensuring water levels are acceptable to property owners – its taxpayers – as well as public safety. Camden’s current water level maintenance policy calls for keeping water levels six inches above the spillways to accommodate property owners.

    “Everybody has a different want and need,” said St. Laurent. “Nobody wants the water to ebb and flow.”

    Local vs. state control

    As citizens urged an improved water level policy May 2, the Select Board debated, at times with high emotion, the distinction between municipal control or ceding responsibility to the state.

    Camden Town Manager Caler said the DEP would look at the water level of the entire river and possibly involve more property owners with intervener status.

    “The next stage in the process is figuring out who has a stake in this,” she said. “I think that given the way the dams are managed all the way from the lake down to the harbor, there is going to be a lot of interest amongst a lot of people who live on the river because they will be impacted by any decision that is made about the Montgomery Dam impoundment.”

    While the petitioners asked the DEP to look only at the impoundment, “in order to keep water levels high at times of the year, particularly in the summer if it hasn’t rained, has an impact on what happens at the lake,” said Caler.

    Board member Tom Hedstrom said that St. Laurent had “potentially” found a 12-inch drain pipe at the Montgomery Dam that was not under municipal control.

    “It makes everything fairly moot until it is addressed by whoever owns that,” he said. “I’d like to emphasize that. We [the town and the DEP] can come up with any level we want but if somebody else is draining the impoundment, there’s nothing we can do about it.”

    He added the town needed to have a broader discussion.

    “As much as I like having the DEP involved, and want the DEP involved, I think this is the discussion that is made here, or decision that is made here,” he said, pointing the to Select Board’s dais.

    Caler said the town had the right to pass an ordinance, or create policy, and that it would trump the state’s process of setting a water level regimen.

    “They stop because they want the local areas to regulate this kind of thing on their own,” she said. “That is certainly a decision you all could make.”

    Because the DEP has not set a time estimate for its own process, the town could target an ordinance for the November ballot, she said.

    “That gives us time to educate ourselves,” said Hedstrom.

    “Which is in some ways would be a beefed-up version of the current water level policy guidelines,” said board vice chair Alison McKellar.

    She said it would be interesting to hear what the DEP determined through its own process.

    But don’t we already have years of data, of how the dam and all the water levels have been moved up and down through the years,” asked board member Stephanie French said. “Why do we need the DEP to step in and do their own thing?”

    She said the board understands what the people want more than the DEP would take into consideration.

    “It comes down to what we want as a group of citizens and a board,” she said. ‘The suggestion of making our ordinance and what we feel is best should be made on our level. That should be step number one.”

    She said the DEP would come in: “and take it over. It’s going to take it out of our hands.”

    Caler said local ordinance will prevail over anything the state would do.

    Hedstrom acknowledged that the DEP ruling could be temporary.

    “Our ordinance could overrule it,” he said.

    French countered: “But we would have to go through the entire summer with whatever they choose as a level, which could impact how the water levels on the river and Megunticook look the entire summer and through the fall, when they are already so low, and have been the last two years. We can walk in front of my entire stone rock wall over at Norton’s Pond.”

    She pressed her point of not giving up local control.

    “We know how we want how our town to look,” she said. “We know how we want our town to feel. We know how the levels should be put.... We  are smart enough and have people here that could come in and help us make an ordinance. We really need to make that happen and keep it out of DEP.”

    McKellar said the determination: “does not have to be an either-or thing. A bunch of people asked the DEP to step in....”

    French broke in: “Because the town is not listening to them. That’s why they are doing this. Because the town is not listening when they are saying the levels are not being maintained.” 

    McKellar started again, “But they are just talking about the Montgomery Dam for this one, but we want to....”

    French again broke in: “We do need to broaden it and make an ordinance, as Audra says, that goes the length of the river. I feel we need to move on that.” 

    Hedstrom clarified with Caler that while the DEP gets its process underway, the town could likewise begin its own process.

    Caler said that the petition is related to a board on a gate that was broken last summer.

    “We fixed it,” she said. “We had to drain the impoundment to fix it. People were upset because of the timeframe when it broke and when it needed to be fixed, in the middle of the summer. It is unfortunate that was the timing and when that happened. It was the reality that happened last summer. But I think this was a reaction to that.”

    French agreed and said that it opened a broader conversation to be had, and an opportunity to make an ordinance.

    “This is the time we have to stand on our own 10 feet [she motioned to the number of Select Board members sitting at the dais] and say, ‘we are going to make an ordinance that make sense for us, and it is not going to make everybody happy.”

    Board member Sophie Romana said there is value in going through the DEP process.

    “I am in favor of public input,” said Hedstrom. “I also don’t have any issues with the DEP. To be honest, it is not my area of expertise so if somebody at the DEP knows something they can tell us, it’s certainly worthy to be included in the debate.”

    He agreed with French that the town should address the issue, and said he also welcomes any input the DEP would provide. 

    McKellar said the DEP has a broader perspective. Camden is not alone with worrying about lake levels and, “where the water goes,” she said.

    She welcomed the chance to review the origin of the current policy, created when Ken Bailey and others were maintaining water levels. She, too, said surrounding towns in the same watershed should be drawn into the discussion.

    “We are a watershed that needs to make decisions at a watershed level if we want to be smart about it,” she said. “Half of our water comes from Lincolnville that goes through downtown.” 

    Hedstrom said: “and Hope has frontage on that lake. They have some stake in it. I never understood why Hope was not involved. Bringing them in should be encouraged and if there are expenses incurred with the management of the water they should also share them.”

    Aanother conversation ensued about dam maintenance during the May 1 ensued, until Caler expanded the focus on changing weather patterns.

    “We are getting more rain in one storm over a longer period of time,” she said. “We need to have our policy updated to reflect that reality. We are still trying to operate as closely as we can to the old policy, and it’s just not working anymore.”

    Time for update, the board and citizens attending the meeting agreed. The policy is the problem.

    Caler suggested a Select Board vote.

    French made a motion to start working toward a ordinance to control water levels from Montgomery Dam to the upper Megunticook Lake.

    Hedstrom proposed advising the board chair put on the next board agenda a discussion and action item about the current policy and the future development of a policy update or ordinance development for water levels on the Megunticook.

    Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657