WINTERPORT, Maine — Conservationists gathered on the banks of the north branch of Marsh Stream on Wednesday to celebrate a milestone some had been working toward for a decade: The West Winterport Dam is no more.
The dam was removed in August after years of legal wrangling between the towns of Winterport and Frankfort and the dam’s owner, John Jones. Jones said that when the electric industry was deregulated, the dam became a financial liability, and he sought permission to remove it.
Conservation groups rallied behind Jones, citing the fact that removing the dam would open up 85 miles of habitat for sea-run fish, including Atlantic salmon, shad and herring. The towns, according to previous Bangor Daily News reports, opposed the removal for a number of reasons. Town residents and officials said the dam provided flood control, a head pond that could be used as a water supply by firefighters, and recreational opportunities.
Bill Townsend, the former president of a group called Facilitators Improving Salmonid Habitat, also known as FISH, was among those fighting on Jones’ behalf to have the dam removed a decade ago. He subsequently scaled back his involvement when Jones entered into a 2003 agreement with the towns of Frankfort and Winterport under which he wouldn’t remove the dam without their approval.
Winterport residents rescinded the agreement at a special town meeting in 2008 and Frankfort followed suit, clearing the way for the dam removal to move forward.
“There’s an old saying that the army gets into the castle by walking over the bodies in the moat,” Townsend said Wednesday as he sat on a stone wall overlooking the stream. “And I was one of the bodies in the moat. And happy to do so, because if we hadn’t gone through that turmoil 10 years ago, this wouldn’t have happened.”
John Burrows, the Atlantic Salmon Federation’s Maine coordinator, said Jones deserved much of the credit for the project’s eventual success.
“John is someone who, 15 years ago, was running dams and small hydro, and over the past 15 years has decommissioned his projects, removed them, and done a number of other dam-removal projects” through his company, Jones Construction, Burrows said. “He sees the value in free-flowing rivers and healthy fisheries and good water quality. So John is a real good model on that.”
According to Burrows, the project, including permitting, engineering, the relocation of mussels from the recently de-watered streambed, and construction, cost about $250,000. He also credited a fresh attitude by town leaders in Frankfort and Winterport for the project’s eventual success.
Jones said the financial demands of owning a dam became unwieldy more than a decade ago, and it no longer made financial sense to operate a small hydroelectric facility. Even if he wasn’t making money by selling power, however, he said he was still required to maintain the dam and provide fish passage.
When some of his neighbors in Winterport and Frankfort bristled at his initial plan to remove the dam, it caught him off guard.
“I was kind of surprised. I’d been pretty much amazed. But they finally got a good understanding of what the situation was,” Jones said.
After the long struggle, Jones had a hard time finding the words to describe his emotions Wednesday.
“Relieved,” he finally said. “Just plain relieved. Excited and relieved.”
Removing the dam, which was about 16 feet high, according to Burrows, allows the water from a 4½-mile impoundment to flow freely. Burrows said he has paddled the stream twice since the dam’s removal and noticed that areas that were formerly under water are already covered with new plant and grass growth.
“We’re going to move ahead and hopefully stock Marsh Stream with Atlantic salmon juveniles in the near future, hopefully in the next year or so,” Burrows said. “We’d love to see a jump-start of a salmon run back in here. There haven’t been Atlantic salmon above this site in many, many years, well over a century.”