Tourism distraction: Restoring the Megunticook watershed

Wed, 11/17/2021 - 6:45pm

Did you know that the waterfall in Camden harbor has become a major tourist attraction? At least a few people think so. They’re upset because the Select Board is considering a recommendation to remove four obsolete dams in the Megunticook River, including the one above the falls. Removing these decaying structures – all downstream of Seabright Dam, located below Shirttail Point – would lower the risk of flooding caused by climate change. It would also allow fish like alewives to migrate upstream. 

Would changing the falls hurt tourism? I checked a dozen internet travel sites, the Maine Tourism Office and several popular guidebooks. Presumably, most people would consult at least one of these sources before visiting Camden. Here’s what I found. The harbor and day schooners ranked high on everybody’s must-see list. So did the library, Harbor Park and Camden Hills. How many of them mentioned the falls? Zero. 

For comparison, I looked up Damariscotta and neighboring towns. As you know, Damariscotta Mills rebuilt its fish passage a few years ago and now runs an alewife festival over Memorial Day – when half of Boston is craving to spend money in Maine. Damariscotta offers a beautiful river, an archaeological site with river walk and, seven minutes away, a celebrated environmental landmark visited by thousands. And we’re supposed to stand tall about – what? A partial view of crumbling Montgomery Falls Dam? Somebody’s not thinking clearly.

History is important. We live in a multi-layered landscape: peer below the surface and you can find visible traces of our fascinating past. From 1850 on, Midcoast Maine was a busy industrial heartland. Mills and factories lined the Megunticook River, turning our useful things. A narrow-gauge railway brought limestone from Simonton to kilns in Rockport, then part of Camden. There it was burned into lime, packed in barrels made in Union and shipped to Boston or New York.

Ships built in Camden sailed around the world and traded in China. In 1916, George Bellows, on his way to becoming famous, painted five remarkable pictures of the Camden shipyards. (One of them, “The Teamster,” can be seen in the Farnsworth Museum.) A half-century earlier, Fitz Henry Lane created iconic images of lumber schooners in Camden harbor and Owls Head. Fragments of our vital maritime heritage still poke up at low tide almost everywhere from Stockton Springs to Brunswick. 

You wouldn’t know much about any of this if you visited Camden today. We don’t have historical markers like Belfast and Wiscasset or a wonderful guidebook like Rockland. The sudden nostalgia about Montgomery Dam – a bit player in Camden’s industrial heyday – seems misplaced, disingenuous. Why keep patching it up with taxpayer money when we could commemorate it better with a marker? 

The alewives raise a different issue. All those factories along the Megunticook left an industrial legacy that can no longer be shrugged off. In 1904, when Edna St. Vincent Millay and her sisters lived at 100 Washington Street, they would skate across their frozen kitchen floor whenever the river rose. With climate change, abandoned mill ponds like the one behind her house have once again become a serious flood risk. And more recent runoff from nearby properties (for example, fertilizers) has made the problem worse. 

Here’s where the alewives come in. Restoring fish passage from the harbor to the lake is a key step in fixing our watershed. As Island Institute cofounder Philip Conkling has written, migrating alewives improve water quality by eating plankton and removing pollutants. They also feed ospreys and other “charismatic megafauna,” as scientists call the animals that people pay to see. 

More than 30 dams along the Bagaduce, Penobscot, Sheepscot, Presumpscot and other rivers have already been removed – welcome news for lobstermen who use alewives for bait. These rivers now play an important role in redressing the strained ecology of fish populations in the Gulf of Maine. But nothing in our watershed can be fixed while Montgomery Dam blocks the river: it’s the gateway to everything else.  

Before retiring, I often wrote about environmental history and property rights – in academic journals, newspaper and magazine articles, court cases and international arbitration proceedings. Most disagreements can be settled fairly and equitably, but only if everyone acts in good faith and follows real science. Cherry-picking a few facts – like the tourism-waterfall trope – only makes reasonable solutions harder to find. When that happens, as a friend liked to say, only the lawyers win.

The Select Board is belatedly developing a process of public consultation to resolve these complex issues. Let’s hope we’re smart enough to use it.   

Dr. Robert Wasserstrom taught human ecology the Columbia University School of Public Health in New York. After leaving academia, he spent 30 years in the energy industry.