The majority of attendees at Whitefield’s Thursday, Jan. 21 public hearing, held to discuss the unanimous recommendations of both the Coopers Mills Dam Committee and the Whitefield Board of Selectmen to remove the Coopers Mills Dam, were Long Pond property owners.
Concerned removal of the dam would affect the water level of Long Pond, waterfront property owners filled the Whitefield Elementary School library to express dismay about what they said was a lack of communication about the proposal and their lack of involvement in a decision many believed would adversely affect them.
Voters will consider the proposal to remove the Coopers Mills Dam and create a recreational area and new dry hydrant system for the fire department in its stead at Whitefield’s annual town meeting.
The dam committee offered to meet with Long Pond property owners prior to the town meeting to further address their concerns and also encouraged a representative of the property owners to address the town meeting before the vote is taken.
The Coopers Mills Dam is approximately two-thirds of a mile downstream from the outlet to Long Pond, which is partly in Somerville, Jefferson, and Windsor. The impact of the Coopers Mills Dam on Long Pond was one of the first things the Coopers Mills Dam Committee looked at, committee members said.
Due to a significant elevation change between Long Pond and the dam, removal of the dam would have no impact on Long Pond, engineer Michael Burke said. Several engineering studies examining the impact of the Coopers Mills Dam on Long Pond have been conducted, committee members said.
Each study has come to the same conclusion – the Coopers Mills Dam is unconnected to Long Pond water levels. The committee intends to make the studies available through Whitefield’s municipal website to dispel any misinformation.
Concerned the studies may be wrong and waterfront owners would be left with no recourse once the dam is removed, Long Pond residents said they would continue to organize and develop alternative proposals for the Coopers Mills Dam.
In considering the future of the Coopers Mills Dam, the major concern and focus of the committee has been fire protection. Whitefield Fire Chief Scott Higgins, a member of the committee, was one of the last members to support the dam’s removal.
“I’ve been the stick in the mud in this whole process,” Higgins said. While the Coopers Mills Dam does not impound water for Long Pond, it does impound water for a dry hydrant, which is one of the fire department’s best water sources, Higgins said. Due to leaks in the dam, the water level is too low during the summer months to use the dry hydrant.
Repairing the Coopers Mills Dam would be the best fire protection for Whitefield, Higgins said, and would allow year-round use of the dry hydrant. The Atlantic Salmon Federation, however, will not fund repairs to the dam, which are estimated to cost approximately $300,000.
The Coopers Mills Dam Committee was formed by Whitefield selectmen over a year ago at the request of the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association. SVCA is now part of the Midcoast Conservancy.
With the Sheepscot River one of the only rivers to carry all 12 migratory fish species in Maine, restoration of the Sheepscot River watershed is a priority project for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Vice President of U.S. Operations Andy Goode said.
As part of the proposal for the Coopers Mills Dam’s removal, the Atlantic Salmon Federation will fund a new dry hydrant system. The new system would install two dry hydrants at the Coopers Mills Dam site and a backup dry hydrant on the West Branch River in Windsor, Burke said.
While the system was designed to be redundant to ensure year-round water access for the fire department, under certain conditions, the dry hydrants cannot be used. During the dry season, if there is no water flowing on the section of the Sheepscot River in Coopers Mills, the dry hydrants will not be usable, Higgins said.
The section of the West Branch River, where the backup dry hydrant will be installed, is prone to flooding, a situation which would prevent the hydrant’s use, Higgins said.
With the cost of repairing the dam beyond the financial reach of the town and the do-nothing option for the dam leaving open the possibility that the dam will eventually wash out and leave the fire department with no dry hydrant, Higgins said he was in support of the proposed dry hydrant system.
The Atlantic Salmon Federation will guarantee the dry hydrant system for a period of three years and establish a fund of $30,000 for the future maintenance of the system if dam removal is approved, Goode said.
In addition, the Atlantic Salmon Federation has offered to establish a fund of $7,500 for the maintenance of the site, which would be redesigned to enhance its recreational use, create a $25,000 account for Whitefield to increase public access along the Sheepscot, and commit $15,000 to repair a culvert on Vigue Road.
The total cost of the proposal would be approximately $800,000, Goode said, which would be funded with no cost to the town. “We’re not cutting any corners on this,” Goode said.
Chuck Vaughn, Coopers Mills Volunteer Fire Department Association secretary, was another committee member reluctant to vote in favor of removal of the dam. “There’s something about the experience of seeing the dam and feeling the water rush over the spillway that can’t be recreated by a kiosk,” Vaughn said.
The realization that the new dry hydrant system may be the best option for long-term fire protection in Coopers Mills ultimately swayed him to vote in favor of dam removal, Vaughn said. “I still keep hoping some kind of a miracle will happen,” he said.
The engineering studies considered by the Coopers Mills Dam Committee will be made available at www.townofwhitefield.com/CoopersMillsDam.html.