While residents voiced support for the repair of the Bristol Mills Dam and fish ladder as well as the ecosystem of the Pemaquid River, an overwhelming majority of residents voted in favor of keeping the dam in a non-binding straw poll at the close of a public hearing Tuesday, Jan. 30.
The purpose of the public hearing was for the Bristol Mills Dam Advisory Committee to share the feasibility study it conducted about the dam over the past year with help from engineering firm Wright-Pierce and to garner residents’ feedback.
The study resulted in three possible outcomes: the repair of the dam and fishway, the partial removal of the dam, or complete removal of the dam.
In his presentation, Wright-Pierce engineer Joe McLean spoke about the three options and their costs, as well as the overall condition of the dam and fishway.
In 2015, Wright-Pierce inspected the dam at the request of the Bristol Board of Selectmen and found it to be in fair to poor condition. The rating was the result of four major problems, including cracks in the dam and chunks of concrete falling out. The town has taken steps to mitigate the problems, such as injecting the cracks with concrete, but more repairs are needed, McLean said.
At the same time, the fishway had not been performing at full capacity. The Maine Department of Marine Resources estimates the Pemaquid River and the ponds upstream can support more than 600,000 adult alewives, but volunteer visual counts estimate approximately 133,038 alewives swam up the ladder in 2016.
McLean listed a number of challenges contributing to the low numbers, including the poor attraction of the fish ladder, a challenging entrance for fish to navigate, and poor flow regulation.
The first option from the feasibility study calls for repairs to the dam and the construction of a widened fish ladder that would solve most of the problems, McLean said. The option calls for the construction of a second fish ladder if the first reaches capacity.
The estimated cost for dam repair and fishway construction is $1,045,000 over 50 years.
The second option calls for the removal of the dam and the construction of nature-like water level control structures. With the valuable habitat the river provides and the people living along the water upstream, “no one wants to see the water level come down,” McLean said.
As part of the second option, however, the town would need to find ways to replicate the values the impoundment provides, McLain said. Bristol Fire and Rescue uses the impoundment as a source of firefighting water, and the dam provides recreational uses, such as swimming.
The estimated 50-year cost for the second option is $735,000.
The third and final option calls for partial dam replacement. Due to the current condition of the dam, however, the entire dam would likely need to be removed and replaced with a shorter structure, McLean said.
While the third option would improve fish passage and attempt to retain some of the firefighting water supply and existing recreational opportunities, the town would likely need to supplement the dam’s existing uses, including with a redesign of Ellingwood Park, McLean said.
The estimated 50-year cost for the third option is $1.42 million to $1.76 million.
“Ultimately, we’re not concluding that the town should do any one of these things,” McLean said. “We’re concluding the town should consider all of these things when making a decision.”
After McLean’s presentation, the floor was opened for questions and comments from residents.
Bristol Fire Chief Paul Leeman Jr. described the dam as the perfect location to provide firefighting water for almost the entire Bristol Mills village and the ease with which firefighters can draw water from the impoundment. Having to draw the water from Ellingwood Park, as proposed in the second and third options, would put the firefighters in an area with lower visibility and traffic traveling at higher speeds, Leeman said.
“I think I’m speaking for all of Bristol Fire and Rescue membership that we’re very adamant things stay the way they are, with improvements to be made,” Leeman said.
Bristol Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Clyde Pendleton Sr. echoed Leeman’s statements and said the impoundment provides the only public, freshwater swimming spot in Bristol.
Alex Beaudet, of Pemaquid, said the decision about the dam would be “the most important decision to make with respect to the Pemaquid watershed” in anyone’s lifetime.
“It’s pretty clear the recreation and everything will be accommodated, but the thing that isn’t up for debate is that option B is for the fish passage, and it’s the cheapest for the town,” Beaudet said. “I know people don’t like change, but however long ago they put in the dam, that was a change. We have a chance to go back and make something right and make something good for the future.”
Jill Linzee, of New Harbor, spoke in favor of dam removal to help preserve the habitat the river provides while Peter Fischer, a Lower Round Pond Road resident, urged residents to support “some really good fishways” to improve the alewife run.
“It’s a big watershed, it’s a habitat for a lot, and I think we owe it to the alewives and our natural environment,” Fischer said. “That said, based on what was said here tonight, I can make a pretty educated guess that the dam’s not going anywhere.”
David Bilski, of New Harbor, asked if there would be grant funding available for any of the options.
The town currently has $70,000 in a reserve account for the fish ladder, and Town Administrator Chris Hall plans to research grant funds for whatever option the town chooses.
Claire Enterline, the chair of the dam committee, said that Whitefield received full funding to remove the Coopers Mills Dam on the Sheepscot River, while improvements to the Damariscotta Mills ladder were completed with a combination of grants and fundraising.
While it was not the dam committee’s charge to look into funding options, Enterline said there appears to be a federal trend of prioritizing funds for dam removal rather than funding improvements for dams and fishways.
At the close of the meeting, Selectman Paul Yates conducted a non-binding straw poll to see what option the residents favored. The option to keep the dam and repair the fishway received 84 votes, while the second option, calling for dam removal and nature-like water-control measures, received 24 votes. Only one hand went up for the third option.
Throughout the evening, various speakers commented on the cordialness of the public hearing and the hard work of the committee in compiling the report.
“I know this has been a very passionate subject, but I’m glad we can all respect everyone’s opinions,” Leeman said.