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ORLAND, Maine — Residents are debating what to do with a 1930s-era dam recently deeded to the town that is a key part of the community’s identity but that could require taxpayers to foot the bill for future maintenance of the aging structure.
Verso Paper transferred the Orland River dam to the town in May after company officials made clear that they had no interest in owning any longer a dam that serves no functional purpose for the mill in nearby Bucksport.
Town residents endorsed the acquisition rather than risk the possibility of Verso starting the regulatory process of abandoning and potentially removing the dam, which creates the scenic impoundment that flows through the village’s center.
Now a special town committee is discussing necessary repairs to one of the dam’s two fish-passage systems as well as the long-term future of the structure, especially when it comes to maintenance costs.
“One of the things we want to do is figure out how much it will cost to keep it and what are the possibilities as far as removing the dam,” said John Barlow, chairman of the Orland Dam Committee. “We have to look at everything and then give the options to the town.”
Built in the 1930s, the dam and resulting impoundment were intended to be a water source for the Bucksport mill. But the mill never tapped into the impoundment behind the Orland River dam and instead pulls water from a dam upstream on Alamoosook Lake. So Verso officials decided about two years ago that they no longer wanted to carry the liability of a dam not necessary to mill operations.
Verso made several repairs to the dam — including fixing gates and removing lead paint — as part of the company’s transfer agreement with the town. Those repairs initially did not include one of the two fishways on the dam, which apparently was damaged to the point that it no longer allowed alewives or other fish to swim upstream.
But Verso officials since have agreed to pay up to $2,000 to repair the fishway, which could be critical to the town’s ability to continue to allow an alewife or river herring harvest at the site.
In a presentation to the dam committee during the summer, Mike Brown with the Maine Department of Marine Resources informed committee members that it was a challenge for the department to receive approval for the Orland harvest.
That is because not enough river herring — the generic name given to blueback herring or alewives — have been able to pass upstream into Alamoosook Lake and eventually Toddy Pond through the one operational fishway, according to a news release distributed by the dam committee.
“We had a hard time getting Orland’s run approved,” Brown said in the release. “Because there’s a lot of habitat, there should be more fish getting through.”
Federal officials also are considering a petition to protect river herring due to population declines in much of their former range along the East Coast, which could affect river herring harvests.
In 2011, roughly 220,000 alewives were harvested from the Orland River for use as bait for lobster and other fisheries. The contractor that harvested the fish returned more than $5,800 to the town’s general fund.
Orland town clerk Connie Brown said Tuesday that future revenues from the alewife harvest likely will be deposited into a reserve account to help the town pay for dam maintenance.
Barlow said the dam committee is putting out requests for proposals to conduct a feasibility study or studies to examine the dam’s condition, determine likely future maintenance costs and explore possible options moving forward, including removing the dam. However, the town first will have to receive grants to pay for the studies.
The study or studies will look at the issues from financial and aesthetic angles, given the dam’s importance to the town’s scenic character.
Spokesman Bill Cohen with Verso Paper said the company supports the feasibility study but that Verso plans to stay out of the issue of the dam’s long-term future.
“Going forward, the dam really belongs to the town and it is their decision about what they want to do with it,” Cohen said.