CAMDEN — Restore Megunticook and the Save the Dam Falls Committee are two homegrown citizen groups with separate goals about the future of the river that runs through Camden, and they both want their referendums to appear before voters at annual Town Meeting, June 14.
Restore Megunticook wants the town to pursue federal and state funding to clean up the river, create a fish passage from the ocean and up the river, and remove the Montgomery Dam, which sits at the river’s outlet at the head of Camden Harbor.
The Save the Dam Falls Committee wants the Montgomery Dam to remain intact, and maintains that a fish passage can be created alongside it. The dam is a visual fixture in a coastal Maine town that relies heavily on tourism.
While the removal of the Montgomery Dam has been most debated, it is but one part of a larger Megunticook River focus, as explained in the 200-plus page Megunticook River Feasibility Report. Recommendations of that 2021 report also include removing the Knox Mill dam, a little further up the river.
The goal of the study was to produce and implement river management options to improve flood resilience, “restore habitat connectivity and ecosystem health, reduce infrastructure management needs, and enrich community values and experiences through enhanced public access and use, educational value, acknowledgement of Town history, and landscape aesthetics,” according to its summary.
Funding for the report derived from a $139,000 National Coastal Resilience Fund 2019 grant.
Currently the town is soliciting proposals from potential consultants to help with the river restoration project. The Select Board had agreed Jan. 11 to move forward hiring a consultant, in part to help applying for federal green and storm water infrastructure grants to fund the project.
On Feb. 28, Town Manager Audra Caler said she has been in contact with potential consultants but declined to identify them.
“I’m not comfortable saying who because a couple need to make a determination between taking on this project and other projects they are currently involved in,” said Caler. “I also don’t know which of these entities will submit a proposal because to date I haven’t received any proposals. I’m hoping that by the first April meeting I’ll have something to bring to the Select Board and release publicly.”
The Restore Megunticook group backs the town’s pursuit of funding sources. That group has set up a website, articulated a mission, and is circulating a petition to place a referendum before Camden voters in June.
The petition reads:“As part of the restoration of the Megunticook River, do you favor the Select Board proceeding with activities such as seeking grant funding on behalf of the town to improve river water quality, reduce flood risk and facilitate fish passage at the outlet of the river, including the removal of the Montgomery Dam, to allow for a natural waterfall?”
Its vision is to remove the four Megunticook River dams owned and maintained by the town to allow free-flowing water to run from Megunticook Lake to the ocean.
“Restoration will reestablish historical river connectivity and migration patterns, improve ecosystem health and enhance flood resiliency,” according to Restore Megunticook.
Meanwhile, another group of Camden residents organized as the Save the Dam Falls Committee submitted at the end of last week their own petition to place a referendum before Camden voters, also in June.
Their petition reads asks Camden to, "protect, preserve, maintain, and repair the existing Montgomery Dam near Harbor Park in Camden.”
Its purpose, according to the Save the Dam Falls Committee, is: “to prevent the destruction or removal of Montgomery Dam and to preserve the Montgomery Dam and Falls. We contend that the Montgomery Dam does not need to be destroyed for the purpose of flood mitigation or fish passage on the Megunticook River."
Tony Grassi has become the lead spokesperson for Restore Megunticook, and is urging the Camden Select Board to create and appoint a Citizens’ Advisory Committee to help decide the river’s future.
An advisory committee would lead an open process of public consultation and information, said Grassi.
“Its recommendations would guide the Select Board in developing a comprehensive river restoration plan, including possible removal of derelict dams,” he said.
Grassi said Feb. 28 that Restore Megunticook members began gathering last fall, with hopes for, “a broad public education process/dialogue about the whole river, but when it became clear that the voters were going to be confronted with a vote in June (low turnout versus November) on only one small part of the river, we decided we had better get our petition drive up and running.”
On Feb. 22, the the Save the Dam Falls Committee delivered a petition with 500 signatures to Camden’s Town Clerk.
That group maintains said the Montgomery Dam: “has minimal to no impact on upstream flooding of the Megunticook River according to the InterFluve Report that was commissioned by the Town of Camden. In addition, a fish ladder could be incorporated into a refurbished Montgomery Dam just as fish ladders will have to be built at other dams along the Megunticook River to allow fish passage all the way into Lake Megunticook.”
The committee continued: “Most people in Camden have been appalled, dumbfounded, and deeply offended by the idea of destroying our waterfall. This petition will give the people a chance to vote on saving one of the crown jewels of Camden.”
But Grassi has emphasized the need to make infrastructure improvements to mitigate, or avoid, any flooding as the result of climate change. He suggested the town apply for grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“If we miss this opportunity,” he said, “Camden taxpayers will end up paying to rebuild town property damaged by flooding or other the impacts of climate change.”
Those grants, he said, require naturalized fish passage to Megunticook Lake, which can be achieved at the Seabright, East and West dams.
Grassi is a former chairman of the Nature Conservancy. He has been involved with other river restoration work in Maine, and said the opportunity for similar positive effects on rivers and community is possible in Camden.
“Our river could be an amazing recreational and ecological resource,” he said. “But large sections are now mostly ignored or unseen. It’s way past time to broaden the dialog about our best options – a dialog that should include any Camden resident who wants to participate.”
In addition to fish passage, the group cites the possibility of kayaking from Norton Pond, which lies above Megunticook Lake, all the way to Curtis Island, in Camden Harbor. The group envisions:
Guided trips down the river on rented kayaks.
Spring events featuring fish runs up the river.
Trails along the river and pocket parks where hikers and kayakers can enjoy a break.
Historical markers to honor our industrial heritage.
Consistent water levels in Megunticook Lake and the river upstream from Seabright Dam.
Modern flood control to protect public and private property – including the harbor – from the rising threats of climate change.
A natural waterfall of 15 feet at the head of tide.
A reduction in dam maintenance costs.
Enhanced aesthetic value of the Megunticook watershed and Camden Harbor.
According to its Feb. 24 news release, “enough signatures have now been certified by the Town Clerk to qualify this Citizens Petition to become a Warrant Article on the June 14 ballot, giving the voters of Camden an opportunity to save Montgomery Dam and preserve Camden's beautiful downtown waterfall.”
The Camden Select Board meets March 1 for a regularly scheduled meeting. While the restoration project is not on the agenda, Grassi intends to address the board during the public comment period.
Select Board meetings are broadcast live on Spectrum Cable TV channel 1303 and web streamed at: www.youtube.com/TownofCamdenMaine
For those wishing to participate remotely, go here: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89870908295
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