BLUE HILL, Maine — The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will need to get abutters to agree to raising the level of Billings Pond and to reach consensus on how high the pond should be before it can move ahead with the project.
That may take some doing, based on comments made Saturday at a meeting where department officials laid out their goals for the pond. While there was little outright opposition to the project, residents raised a number of concerns about the scope of the project and its potential impact on the environment and wildlife in the area.
The department’s interest in the pond dates to the early 1980s when a handful of residents asked if the state would work to raise the level of the pond. Water levels were considerably lower after a mill dam at the outlet of the pond washed out in the 1960s. There was no public access to the pond then, and there was little the state could do at that time, according to Greg Burr, a fish biologist with DIF&W.
More recently, spurred by renewed public interest in raising the water level in the pond, the department began looking for a way to obtain public access. In 2007, DIF&W purchased a parcel near the outlet that previously had provided public access when the mill dam was still intact.
“We want to raise the water level so that people can get to the main body of the pond,” Burr said.
He said the department has no plans to improve the site or the road to the state property, nor does it plan to install a launch ramp. Boaters will still have to carry their boats to launch, he said.
Raising the water level, he said, would provide more fish habitat, allowing the fish to spread out and feed better, and would provide more spawning habitat. The department is considering installing a rock ramp along the outlet stream, similar to the one installed at the Sedgeunkedunk Stream at the outlet of Fields Pond in Orrington. That type of structure, which creates a gradually rising series of smaller ponds along the outlet stream, also would improve access to the pond for sea-run species including eels, alewives and brook trout.
The pond already is one of the best brook trout habitats in Hancock County, according to Burr, and some residents were concerned that increasing access to sea-run species might affect the brook trout population.
“We don’t anticipate that,” Burr said.
Residents also raised concerns about the impact the project would have on the loons that nest on the pond.
“We don’t want to see them harassed,” one woman said. “They’re one of the joys of living on the pond.”
Burr said the project would consider the loon habitats. Much of the problems loons encounter come from high-speed boats, he said, and the launching area will limit the size of boats using the ponds. In response to other questions, he said it would be possible to petition to impose a horsepower limit on the pond.
It is possible that raising the water level in the pond could affect loon nesting areas, Burr said, so it will be important for the department to determine what water level is best.
Although some residents indicated that water levels were as much as 5 or 6 feet above current levels, Burr said they were initially looking at raising the level between 1 and 3 feet.
Abutter Jim Fisher questioned the need for the project. He pointed out that, based on the information from Burr, the only reason for the project was recreational.
“There is no environmental reason to do this project,” he said.
DIF&W wildlife biologist Tom Schaeffer noted that a project such as the one proposed can have a benefit to the environment and to the wildlife in the area. He said he had not completed an assessment of the wildlife habitat but stressed that such a study would be part of the project.
Some attending the meeting were clearly interested in seeing access to the pond improved.
“There’s no public access on Second Pond or Third Pond,” one woman said. “Providing access to the pond is one of the most important factors in this decision.”
Matt Bernier, a fisheries habitat restoration specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has been working with the department on the project. He said there were NOAA grant funds available for projects such as these that would improve or restore passageways for sea-run fish.
Bernier worked on the Orrington project and stressed that the rock ramp requires a solid base on which ramps can be built. They can be built of materials on site, which can help to reduce the costs. Rock ramps are built along the existing stream and the size of the ramps, both the width and the area downstream they will travel, all depend on how much the water level will be raised.
Once that is established, he said, a feasibility study can be done to determine if the site is suitable for that type of structure.
Because the dam has been gone for a considerable time, Selectman Jim Schatz said the department will need all of the abutters to agree to the project and to reach consensus on how high the water level will be. Although the town is not an abutter, the selectmen have been working with the department and abutters on these early phases of the project. DIF&W is developing a form that will be sent to all abutters to gauge their views on the project and on the water levels.
Burr said permitting for the project could take up to a year, so the earliest the project could be constructed would be in 2010. The department has no cost estimates yet.