A crowd of more than 80 people sat in a small gymnasium in the lakeside community of Otis on Wednesday night, where they shared horror stories and listened to conservationists tell them how important the next year may be if they want their bucolic summer scenes on Graham Lake to return.
“This is our chance for a 30- to 40-year outcome here, and if we don’t step up at it, the status quo will prevail,” Dwayne Shaw, executive director of the Downeast Salmon Federation explained after the meeting at Beech Hill School concluded. “And that shouldn’t be what the future of this watershed is.”
The status quo Shaw refers to: Allowing the federal relicensing of two dams according to terms that won’t address the concerns of property owners or fisheries conservationists.
But this isn’t your typical fisheries conservation movement. Not even close.
Mention “conservation group” in the same sentence with the word “dam,” and you’re likely going to get into a raging battle about whether the dam even needs to exist. Here in eastern Maine, the recently completed Penobscot River Restoration Project showed called for the removal of two dams, and the construction of a fish bypass at a third.
And migratory fish have begun to return to stretches of that river they haven’t been able to access for more than 100 years.
In Otis — and Mariaville, and Ellsworth, and Waltham, the communities where the massive 8,000-acre impoundment sits — the question is different.
Nobody, not even the salmon conservationists, are saying they want dams removed, nor the impoundment to disappear.
Neither do they want the wild fluctuations of lake level, which by federal license are allowed to vary by up to 11 feet. And fish passage is a particular concern.
Here, the question is simple: How do we make things better?
“It’s a very, very shallow lake in most places,” Shaw said. “So a little drawdown goes a long way toward exposing a lot of soil.”
And in the photos, that’s all you see.
Soil. Or, in many cases, mud.
How bad is it? Look at the photos. Then listen to Colin Sweeney, who has owned property in Mariaville for 11 years, and who had hoped to retire here, on the shores of Graham Lake.
An extended drought has surely caused lake levels to drop. Everyone concedes that. But there’s still an underlying current of distrust, and landowners and conservationists think allowing such a fluctuation in water levels is no longer appropriate.
The problem: For about half the year over the past two years, he hasn’t been able to see the shore from his “lakefront” home.
“My neighbors have docks that are out into the middle of the mud, and they’ve still got another half a mile to get to water. Or more,” Sweeney said after Wednesday’s meeting.
Still, Sweeney loves his spot on Graham Lake. Ask him how good it gets, when the water is there, and the waves lap up on shore, and he smiles.
“It is glorious and beautiful,” he said. “In the springtime, and the early summer, there are frogs. It’s like an orchestra. It’s deafening. Or, it used to be.”
A couple of dry summers later, Sweeney is left looking out at a field of mud.
“Right now, it’s like the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme in the First World War,” he said. “It’s really awful to look out there.”
On Wednesday, Shaw urged landowners to get involved, and to comment as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission considers a relicensing request for the dams.
Organize, Shaw told the crowd. Form a lake association. Talk to your town officials.
“This is our chance. We’ve got to do it,” Shaw said, pointing out that the next time the dams will come up for licensing consideration will be in another 30 years. “And now, with an endangered species here, it does change the game.”
Ah, the endangered species. Since the license was last renewed, Atlantic salmon in Maine have been given federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Union River is considered critical habitat, and because of that, Shaw expects fish passage at the dams to be a key consideration as the process moves forward.
And while they’re talking about fish passage, why not tinker with the federally approved flow regimes that property owners say are leaving them high and dry?
“The town charges us extra taxes for lakefront property,” Sweeney said. “That kind of burns a little bit.”
All Sweeney wants is the return of the place he fell in love with when he first visited.
“The bottom line: It’s amongst the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to, and it’s one of the reasons we wanted to move here,” Sweeney said. “We like Maine. Maine’s a great place to live. The wildlife, and the nature. You can walk out and there’s no sound.”
There’s nothing like lakeside living, he’ll tell you.
When there’s a lake.
“Up here, it’s beautiful. It’s natural. The air smells great,” Sweeney said. “And it looks beautiful when there’s water there.”
John Holyoke can be reached at email@example.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke