Too soon for the dam vote

Mon, 11/01/2021 - 10:30am

Camden voters are not in a position to make an informed decision on the future of the Montgomery Dam. We need as a community to better understand what our options are for the entire Megunticook River and jointly decide among them. I therefore oppose the signature drive to force an early vote at the next town meeting that would prematurely tie our hands. 

The Save the Dam Falls people, several of whom I know, like and respect, had a point when they argued that the procedure the Select Board and town government appeared to have adopted on this issue was confusing and perhaps ill-conceived. Now Save the Dam Falls seems to be doing the same thing they accused officials of: Trying to rush a decision on Montgomery Dam before anybody has thoroughly defined the options for that dam, or for the Knox Mill and Knowlton Street dams directly upriver from Montgomery. 

Luckily, as became clear at the workshop held in Harbor Park earlier in October, the Select Board and town officials accept that there should, and legally must, be a town vote on what to do with each of the old dams on the Megunticook River below Seabright, and that work on how the Megunticook entrance into the harbor should look in the future is barely even started. 

Whether there should be a dam at the top of the harbor, and whether there should be access to the river and the lake for ocean fish such as alewives through a fish ladder or more natural looking mechanism, would be included in this discussion. 

The Seabright Dam that forms the so-called “river” area on the Megunticook will certainly stay, as will the twin dams that make Lake Megunticook. That’s a given. But the Knox Mill dam that forms a pond in back of the building that houses 40 Paper and The Jack restaurants, and the two-sided dam that is visible from the Knowlton Street bridge and the skateboard park above it are increasingly expensive to maintain and could be removed. 

This would allow the river to return to something closer to its natural course and the fish to get as far as Seabright Dam, where a fish passage could be built. It would also make the river somewhat less prone to destructive flooding, according to a study on Megunticook River restoration prepared for the town by consultants Inter-fluve and engineers Gartley & Dorskey. However, the study also indicates that inland flooding isn’t currently a tremendous risk to Camden. 

Picking the best option is not a ‘no-brainer.” It’s a complex question that will require study, discussion and thought by all who are willing to participate. Locking in a plan for one of those three dams without knowing what will be done with the others makes no sense. The future of fish in Lake Megunticook. The potential for obtaining grants to pay for whatever Camden voters eventually decide to do. The way the river will look as it passes through town and tumbles into the harbor. All these depend on what is done with all the dams below Seabright. 

There is no point in helping fish get up to the top of the falls at the harbor unless they can get on up the river to the lake, which means getting rid of, or building fish passages around, the Knox Mill and Knowlton Street dams. 

While inland flooding may not be a huge concern, increasingly serious flooding at the harbor as a result of the climate change-related rise in ocean levels is a clear and present danger. Removing any or all of the dams on the Megunticook won’t change this. But many of those who are anxious to prematurely lock us into maintaining the Montgomery Dam are concerned as much or more about the wall along the inland side of the waterfalls as they are about the impoundment pool at the top. The wall affects how Harbor Park looks. 

Unfortunately, rising sea levels are already encroaching on the lower reaches of the park and weakening that wall. The part of the park adjacent to the harbor cannot be maintained as it is for much longer, regardless. The park already floods at high astronomical tides almost monthly, and not infrequently by up to a foot. Raising the seawall by two feet, as some suggest, would buy a few years at most, and probably not that should a large storm hit this area. Camden is no more immune to rising oceans than Venice or Miami Beach.  

Nothing will be done to the dam or anything else on the river without a town vote. All our voices can be heard, and perhaps our eventual decision will be to keep the Montgomery Dam. Our choice should certainly be to create something beautiful at the head of Camden’s beautiful harbor. But an early vote would have the effect of locking in an answer to a question that most of us have barely begun to formulate.