MACHIAS, Maine — Nearby landowners are readying the arguments they will present to the Maine Department of Transportation when it holds a public hearing in December on the replacement of Dyke Bridge on Route 1, which crosses the mouth of the Middle River in Machias.
Wooden cribwork has been damaged by time and seawater, and minor repairs made over the past several years are not holding up.
No one disagrees that repairs are necessary, but the controversy centers on several culverts that were installed more than 80 years ago and contain four tidal, or flapper, valves that hold the seawater back when the tide fluctuates.
DOT Project Manager Devon Anderson recently described the two options the DOT is considering. One would replace the tidal valves and construct a new bridge or causeway which would look and act much like what exists today.
The second option would install a traditional bridge over at least part of the river and allow the tide to flow freely back and forth into the river basin.
Environmental groups such as the Downeast Salmon Federation would like the dike reopened for migrating fish.
Local landowners and town officials, however, maintain that removal of the flappers would devastate the existing ecosystem.
“It would be so much easier to fix what we have,” landowner Chris Sprague said Friday.
Sprague said that removing the flappers will create an environmental disaster, flood much of his 90 acres along the Middle River, put several area businesses, a snowmobile trail and a historic horse racing track under water and create a rotting, stinking marsh.
“Why does an ecosystem that has been in place for 150 years have to be replaced by an ecosystem that isn’t even here?” he said.
“This is a unique habitat that has been established over 150 years,” Sprague said. “If they allow the seawater to rush in, it will affect 10 Machias property owners and 55 Marshfield property owners. Some properties will completely disappear. To lose all this would be heartbreaking.”
DOT officials have said that state and federal environmental agencies are very interested in returning the Middle River to a tidal river, which was changed when the tidal gates were put in place in the 1800s.
The DOT is in the early stages of the project, which may take three to four years before it is completed and could cost $4 million to $5 million. Some DOT officials have questioned whether they will be able to obtain the necessary federal permits for the flappers even if that is what the townspeople want.
Anderson also has maintained that “offsets” will not play a role in the project. Mitigation offsets are credits for allowing land to return to its natural state. DOT could bank these credits for use in other projects.
The public hearing has been scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 16, in the lecture hall of the science building at the University of Maine at Machias.