Orland residents will get a chance to decide the fate of the Orland Village Dam at an upcoming town meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. June 15 in the gymnasium of the Orland Community Center at 21 School House Road in Orland.
They’ll have two options: Keep the dam and be willing to pay for annual maintenance and fish ladder upkeep, or accept funding being offered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, the Nature Conservancy and other partners to remove the structure.
“Our dam committee isn’t making a recommendation. We just want to present what the alternatives are and the facts are as we’ve learned them,” said John Barlow, chairman of the Orland Dam Committee. “We’ve been studying it now for four years.”
When Verso Paper turned the head-of-tide dam over to the Town of Orland in May 2011, a committee of local residents had already begun exploring what to do with it. The Orland Dam Committee raised about $70,000 and hired engineering firm Stantec to do a feasibility study, completed in 2013. That study looked at five options for the dam — from doing nothing, to upgrading the dam and fish ladder, to installing a nature-like fish bypass, to dam removal.
Rebuilding or upgrading the dam and fish ladder was discarded as too expensive, and a nature-like fishway turned out to be unworkable at the site. That left the “do nothing” option — keeping the dam and paying for minimal upkeep — and dam removal as the most favorable outcomes.
“The advantages of removing it is it’s going to be more beneficial for the fish,” said Barlow. “It would also remove the liability and the cost to the town [for dam maintenance]. The disadvantage is you’re going to change things, and there are a lot of people who really like it the way it is.”
If the town decides to remove the dam, the water level of the Narramissic River above the dam would drop 2 to 3 feet, said Barlow, and saltwater would rush upriver from the Penobscot Bay, creating an estuary where there was once freshwater habitat. It would also allow diadromous fish to swim freely upriver.
Earlier this year, NOAA selected the Atlantic salmon of the Gulf of Maine for its “Species in the Spotlight” initiative, an agency-wide effort to save and bring public attention to species of the United States that are among the most at risk of extinction in the near future. Through that initiative, NOAA plans to provide funding to improve fishways and remove dams from Maine rivers and streams in several watersheds.
The Narramissic River, once said to have the third-largest alewife run in Maine, is near the top of NOAA’s list for its potential for restoring native fish habitat. The river is within the boundaries of what NOAA has determined to be “Atlantic Salmon Critical Habitat.” NOAA has determined there is a considerable amount of Atlantic salmon habitat in the Narramissic River watershed upstream from Orland Village Dam, according to Stantec’s 2013 report.
“This is all driven by federal funding,” said Orland innkeeper Alvion Kimball, who serves on the Orland Dam Committee and is against removing the dam. “My biggest complaint is that we’re going to be rushed to do it, and we don’t know the impact and implications that will have. We haven’t had enough time explore that.”
Kimball owns an inn and rental cottage on the banks of the Narramissic River above the dam, and he’s concerned that if the dam is removed, the rapid change in environment would negatively affect wildlife, recreation and real estate values.
“There’s no doubt the [water level] will drop,” said Barlow. “There’s no doubt that at low tide, the water level is going to be low, and that’s one of the reasons that some people are very skeptical of removing the dam.”
Several questions remained unanswered after the first study, including what Orland Village might look like without its dam, how the town would fight a downtown fire without the key source of freshwater (saltwater cannot be used by the fire-fighting equipment) and whether a recently discovered mercury hotspot below the dam is cause for concern. If the dam were removed, the mercury could be more easily transported by tides and moving sediment, Barlow said, moving upriver and possibly affecting wildlife.
“We don’t have all the answers,” Barlow said. “If we knew everything, it’d be easy. There are issues if you remove the dam, and there are issues if you don’t remove it.”
The Orland Dam Committee worked with a team from NOAA, The Nature Conservancy and Maine Sea Grant on a second round of studies in 2014 and 2015 to answer these questions.
While dam removal comes with a price tag in excess of $500,000, funds for dam removal — as well as for associated costs from bridge upgrades to firefighting water supplies — are available right now, according to Matt Bernier, civil engineer with the NOAA Fisheries Service.
“NOAA and its partners, such as The Nature Conservancy, have continued the feasibility study for the dam and are reserving hundreds of thousands of dollars to assist the town of Orland, with more funding available,” said Bernier in a prepared statement.
“NOAA would like to continue working with the Town of Orland and begin focusing on technical issues such as water supplies for firefighting, protection of upstream bridges, and a planned transition to a free-flowing Narramissic River that benefits people, fish and wildlife.”
Orland residents and any other interested parties will have the opportunity to learn more about the dam and related issues at three upcoming events occurring prior to the June 15 town meeting.
“We want to get a lot of people to show up,” said Barlow. “Then they can make a decision.”
The following are three upcoming events concerning the Orland Village Dam that are open to the public:
— Local innkeeper Alvion Kimball and Catherine Schmitt from Maine Sea Grant will be leading a field trip on Tuesday, May 10, to see the alewife run at Damariscotta Mills — one of Maine’s oldest and most productive alewife fisheries, where a fish ladder restoration has become a major attraction. Vans will leave from Orland Methodist Church in the morning at a time to be announced soon. To sign up, email Kimball at email@example.com or call 469-0077.
— The Orland Village Dam alewife harvesting operation and fish ladder will be open to the public at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 22, as part of World Fish Migration Day celebrations.
— A public forum will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 1, at the Orland Community Center. During the forum, residents will be able to weigh the options for the dam. Several speakers will present the results of numerous studies done on the dam and Narramissic River since 2011, talk about fish and wildlife changes and visual changes to expect with dam removal, and discuss the funding being offered to the town to remove the dam.
For more information on the Orland Village Dam and upcoming programs, call Barlow at 469-3749 or visit orlandfutures.blogspot.com, a website that will be updated frequently until the town meeting on June 15.