WHITEFIELD, Maine — The Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association have approached the towns of Alna and Whitefield with proposals to either purchase or negotiate the removal of Alna’s Head Tide Dam and Whitefield’s Coopers Mills Dam.
Andrew Goode of the Atlantic Salmon Federation and Steve Patton of the Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association spoke with the Whitefield Board of Selectmen at the board’s meeting Dec. 23.
Goode and Patton also recently spoke with Alna First Selectman David Abbott about a similar proposal for Head Tide Dam.
There have been several initiatives and proposals to transfer ownership or remodel historic dams along the Sheepscot River to facilitate fish passage, particularly for Atlantic salmon, over the past two decades, according to Lincoln County News archives. All previous proposals have failed.
Atlantic salmon have been declared endangered in 11 Maine rivers, including the Sheepscot. According to the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Atlantic salmon populations in North America have dropped to dangerously low levels.
The Sheepscot River is part of the Atlantic salmon’s natural spawning and rearing habitat. However, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, dams along the Sheepscot have blocked salmon passage, contributing to their decline.
The Atlantic Salmon Federation is engaged in several projects throughout Maine to remove dams that are blocking the spawning habitat of Atlantic salmon. They have identified the Coopers Mills Dam and the Head Tide Dam as potential locations for future projects.
“We’re in the discussion phase right now to figure out how to proceed,” Goode, vice president of U.S. operations for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, said. “We’re not trying to rush anything or dismiss any of the good work that came before us.”
In 2007, a warrant article to convey ownership of the Coopers Mills Dam to an outside agency was presented at the Whitefield town meeting. The Sheepscot River Watershed Council spearheaded the coalition that lobbied for the warrant article so the dam could be remodeled to allow for fish passage.
The warrant article asked voters to give selectmen the power to “convey the Coopers Mills dam on such terms and conditions as the selectmen determine to be in the best interest of the town.” It was voted down 165-101.
According to previous reports in The Lincoln County News, voters were confused about what a yes or no vote on the warrant meant.
The proposal to sell or modify the Head Tide Dam in Alna never made it to a warrant article. The Sheepscot River Watershed Council approached Alna selectmen in 2008 to discuss the possibility of removing the dam. However, the Head Tide Dam was sold to Alna in 1964 with the stipulation that it “shall not be destroyed” — a phrase contained in the property’s deed.
“We’re trying to take a fresh look at this and bring in some fresh resources for the discussion,” Goode said.
The Maine Historic Preservation Commission is one of the resources Goode intends to bring to the table.
“Our view is that the dam is not going to last forever,” Goode said. “It’s not permanent. Eventually Mother Nature will take the dams over. Let’s not wait until that point. There may be a better way to memorialize the mills and preserve the historical integrity of the sites.”
In addition to the historic significance of the sites, the Coopers Mills Dam is an important resource for Whitefield firefighters. According to a report by Kleinschmidt Energy & Water Resources Consultants in 2006, the dam maintains a head pond with a dry hydrant used by firefighters to pump water.
Whitefield Fire Chief Scott Higgins told Whitefield selectmen Dec. 23 he was ready to sign off on some of the previously proposed plans. However, questions still remained about the permitting and maintenance of a new dry hydrant.
“The biggest stumbling block has been fire safety,” Higgins said. “It’s a big concern. There were a lot of meetings but we never got an answer to some of these questions because they’re an unknown.”
“We’re trying to restore things to their natural state,” Goode said in agreement, “but there are still as many permits as if we were building something new.”
Goode said his organization was committed to answering some of the previously unanswered questions surrounding the creation of a new dry hydrant in Whitefield. He joined Patton at the selectmen’s meeting to request the formation of an exploratory committee to examine different proposals for the dam.
Proposals suggested by Goode include transferring ownership of the dam from the town to the Atlantic Salmon Federation or entering into an agreement with the town so the Atlantic Salmon Federation could fund the dam’s modification or removal.
Whitefield selectmen debated the best way to proceed. Tony Marple suggested discussing the formation of the committee at the town meeting so residents would have the opportunity to voice their concerns.
“We want to keep this in the absolute daylight,” he said.
In order to discuss the formation of a committee at the town meeting, however, selectmen believed that a warrant article would have to be drafted. Other selectmen were concerned that if the warrant article was voted down, it would kill the proposal before it was even discussed.
“We own the liability to the dam,” Selectman Frank Ober said. “People need to understand that. At some point, we’re going to have to pay to get it fixed.”
Patton and Goode said they would begin to reach out to stakeholders in Whitefield, particularly from the Coopers Mills village, the historical society and the fire department.
Selectmen said they would talk with the town attorney to figure out if there was a way to discuss forming an exploratory committee at the March town meeting without having to draft a warrant article.
Patton and Goode hope to form an exploratory committee in Alna as well to see if there is public support there for a similar project at Head Tide Dam.
“It’s a philosophical argument,” Patton said, “but these dams were built to provide power to the mills. They’re no longer being used for that purpose. We borrowed from nature to make those dams. Now let’s return them to nature.”