ORLAND, Maine — More than two years after the town took it over, the future of the dam that’s created the scenic waterfront appeal in Orland village is still up in the air. But hopefully not for much longer.
The town has commissioned a Topsham-based consultant to begin a study of the dam and its impoundment area, the results of which will help Orland decide what to do with the dam. That study begins this week, and a final feasibility report will be available for selectmen by late April 2013, according to Orland Dam Committee Chairman John Barlow.
The town took ownership of the Orland River Dam in May 2010, after its original owner, Verso Paper, decided it no longer wanted a dam that served no purpose to the mill in Bucksport. The dam was originally built in the 1930s to create a water source for the mill, but instead, Verso now pulls its water supply from an upstream dam at Alamoosook Lake.
The dam committee has contracted Stantec Consulting Services to conduct the study, which will include field studies, public meetings and analysis. Stantec and the committee will use data collected to inform consideration of several dam options: Rehabilitation and repair, modification to the alewife fish way, replacement with a natural structure or total dam removal. As always, “no action” is also an option.
Barlow said removal would be a drastic option, considering that even before the ’30s, there was always a dam on Orland River. He said that since colonial times, the dam has played a role in creating the scenic views of the village.
“If the dam were removed, the river would all be tidal,” he said Tuesday. “It would change the aesthetic value of the village, but it’s not clear exactly how.”
The study will mostly go unnoticed by residents, but Barlow said that a river drawdown scheduled to take place sometime this month will likely draw Orlanders’ attention. The gates on the right side of the dam will be opened so Stantec and the Dam Committee can observe water levels and get a better idea of what the no-dam scenario might look like.
Since Verso transferred ownership to Orland in 2010, some modifications to the dam have taken place. One of the fish ladders, through which alewives move upstream, had taken a beating and wasn’t providing easy access for the fish. In December, the Maine Department of Marine Resources said it was having a hard time winning approval for Orland’s alewife harvest because not enough of the fish were passing north toward Toddy Pond.
Since then, Verso put up the money necessary to fix the fish ladder, and DMR marine scientist Claire Enterline said Orland’s fishery has been deemed sustainable.
“They had some problems in the past, but the work they’ve done on the fishway seems to work well, so far as where we are right now,” she said.
Barlow said the eight-month study is expected to cost about $70,000. The town has secured funding from Verso, Davis Conservation Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Maine Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership and the Gulf of Maine Coalition. Still, the town has had to kick in about $10,000, he said.
Orland also asked the town of Bucksport to pitch in $3,800, but town councilors there unanimously rejected the request last week. Barlow said a section of the dam’s impoundment area is in Bucksport, along Route 46 in Duck Cove.
Bucksport Councilor Belle Ryder said she was opposed to giving the money because Bucksport “wasn’t involved in the decision to take up the study, decision about the study, [or] who would be awarded the contract.”
“I’d say to Orland, that after the study is completed, we’d like to be more involved,” she said.
Orland residents will get their first chance to get involved in the dam study next week at the 7 p.m. meeting of the Orland Dam Committee on Thursday, Sept. 13, at Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.