Efforts to remove Camden dam are misplaced

Featured, Save The Dam

Camden’s beautiful Montgomery Dam Waterfall.

By Roger Akeley — Op Ed in Bangor Daily News, May 6, 2024

Roger Akeley of Camden worked professionally as an urban and regional planner both in New Hampshire and New York, where he was also an adjunct professor. He is a member of the Save the Dam Falls Committee.

The Montgomery Dam and its waterfall are a centerpiece to Camden’s beautiful and historic core along with the library, Harbor Park (designed by the world-famous Olmsted firm), and the amphitheater.

In 2017 voters allocated $50,000 for repairs to the dam. At the same time the Camden Comprehensive Plan, endorsed and signed by the Select Board on behalf of the Town, included Montgomery Dam restoration in its suggested 10- year Capital Improvement Plan. Interestingly, the plan did not identify any problems along the Megunticook River.

But now Camden faces an imminent threat of losing Montgomery Dam because of grant requirements within the National Coastal Resiliency Program, a worthwhile endeavor designed to promote fish passage.

This resiliency program is administered by the Federal Fish and Wildlife Foundation, in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Defense and several private corporations.

Camden does not fit the grant requirements. In its attempt to meet them, the town parroted purposes of the grant, but without a sufficient statement of need.

First, it was unable to prove that the Megunticook River was ever a spawning route from Camden Harbor. The Inter-Fluve engineering report, commissioned by the town, admits that the status of the Megunticook River as a former spawning site is “not conclusively known.” That is the language of “possibilities” or “potential”, not the language of certainty.

Secondly, the Montgomery Dam does not appear to be the impediment to a hypothetical fish passage because the embankment below the dam is so high that fish could not scale it even if the dam was removed. That’s why a fish ladder is being proposed at the harbor’s edge even as the dam is destroyed.

A third mistake was the claim that the Montgomery Dam causes flooding. The Inter-Fluve Report doesn’t support this contention. The dam is 7.5 feet below Main Street and provides little resistance as the river water discharges into the harbor.

About $1.6 million is currently being spent to implement the ongoing stream restoration plan that would eliminate the Montgomery Dam, while building a chain of concrete fish ladders along a three-mile Megunticook.

There is also an in-kind match from Camden. It is surprising that federal agencies encouraged and even guided Camden officials who had presented a flawed view of the past in order to qualify for their grant terms.

As it now stands, the short stream segment will have three dams removed while retaining three others. It will contain several new concrete fish ladders, built to jump the impediments. The proposed fish ladders will be very expensive both to build, then to maintain.

Nevertheless, grant advocates, which include some highly regarded environmental groups, along with the grantor entities, continue to insist on eliminating the Montgomery Dam, an historic, eight-foot structure, created by local masons in 1931.

Meanwhile, they seem to have no problem building hundreds of feet of poured concrete fish ladders, which becomes an unnatural, Disney-like endeavor to build a new environment that never existed; it will be artificial from one end of the river segment to the other.

To me, their plan is in direct conflict with the notion of “resiliency.” Flooding is an issue, but totally unrelated to the Montgomery Dam. It should be addressed independently from the grant. Solutions will include new drawdown protocols from Megunticook Lake, establishment of quick-response obstruction clearance teams, a better bridge passage under Route 1 (scheduled for construction), and work on other long-term solutions.

It’s time to pull away from the resiliency grant. It’s time to redirect town efforts and grant-seeking toward solving a long list of real problems.

Flawed thinking has run its course and now a practical and grounded electorate must move on to replace this magical thinking by focusing on clear priorities, from shoreline management to affordable housing to curbing PFAS contamination.

Camden voters can relieve both their Select Board and federal partners from unnecessary obligations by voting overwhelmingly to save Montgomery Dam. When the vote occurs, likely to be recommended by the Town for November, 2024, we have a chance to save money and the historic beauty at the Town’s birthplace, while giving new life to its industrial heritage, including its mill ponds and waterfalls.

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