Dike replacement plans for Machias still in works

Posted Aug. 29, 2010, at 11:17 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — State officials that had promised a spring meeting about the repair and possible replacement of the flappers in the dike across Middle River in downtown Machias said they haven’t set up such a meeting because there is no news to share.

Maine Department of Transportation Project Manager Steve Bodge said there has been no 2010 public meeting scheduled because “Nothing is really going on.”

The dike, which contains four flappers — a style of tidal gates — to keep seawater out of the Middle River at high tide, is an integral part of Machias life.

Its large parking area provides a scenic outlook and hosts the area farmers market and a cacophony of flea market sellers. The dike itself keeps the sea from flooding nearby land and poisoning wells. It has been estimated by opponents to removing the flappers that if the sea were allowed back into the river basin, it would affect 10 Machias property owners and 55 Marshfield property owners and create what opponents have called “an environmental catastrophe.”

The dike has been in place since the 1800s.

Wooden cribwork has been damaged by seawater over time, and minor repairs made in the past few years are not holding up.

More than 100 residents, town officials and business owners spoke out against the removal of the flappers last December at a meeting with the DOT.

The issue appears to be pitting the area landowners against environmentalists who want to return the area to a salt marsh and allow the migration of sea-run fish up the Middle River.

State and federal environmental agencies are 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 very early stages of the project, which would not be completed for five years or more and could cost $4 million to $5 million.

The key to whether the gates are included in the bridge plan is DOT’s ability to obtain the necessary construction permits from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Bodge said the DOT is “in conversation” with the Army Corps of Engineers, which could provide the necessary permitting and funding to conduct a feasibility study. Such a study could take several years, Bodge said, and then building a construction plan will take several more years.

“This is going to be a long process,” Bodge said. “It will be years and years before we figure this out.”

Bodge said a feasibility study would look at everything from a new, wide-open bridge to replacing the flapper system as it now exists, and “everything in between.”

Bodge was adamant that potential funding sources would not affect the outcome. Even though he said the Army Corps of Engineers appears to favor restoring the salt marsh, that opinion will not be given more weight than the public’s desire to keep the sea at bay.

“This is not an easy situation,” he said. “We are required by law to pass fish through there and that is not happening. But there are many ways to do this. We are not counting any idea out in any direction. It is way too early for that.”

At the last public hearing, held in December 2009 at the University of Maine at Machias, residents were visibly relieved when Wendy Mahany of U.S. Fish and Wildlife said that replacing the tidal gates would not affect Atlantic salmon.

“Keeping the flappers will not affect the salmon’s endangered status,” she said.

Mahany said that in the nearby town of Addison — the only other town in Maine with a dike and bridge system similar to that in Machias — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to remove the tidal gates and restore a saltwater marsh.

“But here, in Machias, this is new to us. We just don’t know yet. My agency does have an interest in restoring tidal flow, but no decisions have been made,” she said.

Bodge said this week that the DOT already has come to an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers to restore the marsh at Addison, which is what many landowners there wanted.

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