NEWPORT, Maine — A project to make the dam at the southwest outlet of Sebasticook Lake safe to operate is complete, but the town faces a more expensive solution to a problem that’s been ongoing for years.

No matter what chains have been used to lift and lower the dam’s gate over the years, they have all broken, said Town Manager James Ricker. The gate, which can let water rush through or hold it back, is necessary so the town can regulate the level of the lake.

In May, one of the chains snapped and almost struck Public Works Director Larry Merrithew while he was trying to adjust the gate, according to a May 14 story in the Bangor Daily News. The chain whipped past his head and wrapped around a nearby pole.

The town called for repairs and spent $7,300 to design and install a safety cage around the gate’s controls. That project was completed three weeks ago, said Ricker.

In addition to the safety hazard it poses, a gate that can’t be lifted can cause the lake level to dip, which angers shoreline residents and boaters, said Ricker. In the summer, it requires almost constant supervision by Merrithew and members of the Sebasticook Lake Association.

“A lot of people lose their water frontage [when the water level goes too low],” he said. “We’ve been looking at targeting a lake level that’s three inches below the top of the flashboards.”

Flashboards are wooden planks that run along the top of the dam to slow the flow of water when the lake is exceptionally high.

After repeated failures of the gate — there have been three breaks in the past four years — and estimates of more than $500,000 to replace it with another design, Ricker is exploring some sort of adjustable apparatus that could replace the stationary flashboards. That would eliminate the need for the gate altogether, but there are a lot of unknowns.

“Adequate flashboards that can be adjusted might be a cheaper fix,” said Ricker. “I just haven’t studied it enough yet to know.”

The town thought it had a solution in place last year when a local contractor came up with a design for flashboards that could be adjusted hydraulically. The town went as far as purchasing $9,500 in materials for the job, but the contractor fell seriously ill and is unable to perform the work. Ricker said Tuesday that the contractor is too ill to be bothered.

“It’s time to have someone else step in, but it’s going to take funding to accomplish,” said Ricker. “We’ve spent $55,000 over the years just repairing that gate. It’s absolutely critical that we start budgeting for a replacement gate.”

Ricker said he plans to present a plan for setting money aside to selectmen this fall with hopes of approval for the plan at the March 2010 town meeting. He expected townwide support for the project.

“I think everyone in town realizes the importance of this lake in this community,” he said. “I’ve never seen the town divided as to the importance of maintaining their lake.”


Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.