CAMDEN, Maine — If you’ve ever taken a trip to Camden Harbor, you’ve most likely been mystified by the waterfall behind Main Street where the Megunticook River takes its final descent into the sea.
While the river is in part cascading over a natural ledge, there’s also a 200-year-old man-made element at the top of the falls — Montgomery Dam.
The landmark is popular with tourists and locals, but town officials are considering demolishing it.
“It used to power a gristmill back in Camden’s industrial era,” Camden Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell said. “Right now it has no purpose other than being a water feature.”
Concerns are being raised over the negative environmental and financial impacts — such as flooding — the dam poses.
A study commissioned by the town determined that removing it would be the best option. Now, town officials are gearing up for a conversation about the dam’s future.
While there are benefits to removing it, not everyone in town is quite sure if they outweigh the dam’s historical and aesthetic value.
Montgomery Dam creates an impoundment of water right above the falls that acts as a sort of reflecting pool. Numerous Main Street businesses, including two restaurants, have decks located above the dam so customers can take in the view.
Tom Rothwell’s Main Street business, The Camden Deli, is one of those restaurants. Rothwell said he supports environmental causes, but has yet to see a plan that would maintain the historical value in the area of the dam.
“What is being proposed is a dramatic, broad ranging change to a landscape that has been largely untouched for 200 years,” Rothwell said in an email.
A dam without a purpose
Talks about demolishing Montgomery Dam began nearly two years ago, when the selectboard was considering spending about $60,000 to repair it.
Selectboard member Alison McKellar had just been elected to serve on the board, and when she saw the appropriation request, she started to ask questions about the dam and its purpose.
The town owns four dams in total. East and West dams are essential to retaining Megunticook Lake. The decommissioned Seabright Dam, located on the Megunticook River, formerly operated as a hydropower dam, but now forms a heavily used recreation area.
But Montgomery Dam just isn’t that useful.
“It’s one of those issues that’s sort of very embarrassing to stumble upon. You would never be able to build [a dam] like this now,” McKellar said. “We’re maintaining a 20-foot pool of water in the middle of town underneath everybody’s buildings.”
Montgomery Dam was built in the late 1700s. During its heyday, the dam powered the Camden Gristmill, which McKellar said was one of the first in the region.
But as the industrial era faded in Camden, so did the need for the gristmill and the dam that powered it. The town took ownership of Montgomery Dam in 1992 and has since been responsible for its maintenance.
The price of maintaining the status quo
While dams once provided — and in some cases continue to provide — a useful purpose, “they have done so at a significant cost to the original ecosystem of our rivers and streams,” according to a publication from the Natural Resources Council of Maine on dam removal and river restoration.
The presence of dams slows down rivers, alters water temperatures, blocks the movement of river species, creates a collection of silt on river bottoms and poses flood risks, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
This spring, the town commissioned a river restoration and engineering firm, Interfluve, to conduct a feasibility study on the removal of Montgomery Dam, as well as the feasibility of alternatives, such as reconstruction of the dam or partial reconstruction.
According to the Interfluve study, removing the dam would “provide the greatest benefits in terms of reducing operation and maintenance requirements and reducing upstream flooding impacts, while also providing the most advantageous fish passage conditions and greatest benefits in terms of ecological recovery of the watershed.”
It would cost about $700,000, according to McKellar, but to town officials, this price tag far outweighs the millions of dollars in reconstruction and maintenance the dam would require in the future.
If Montgomery Dam were to stay, it would continue to require constant manipulation by town employees during rainstorms to make it more resilient to flooding.
Town officials understand that as our climate changes, the intensity of storms will increase and so will the potential of flooding. Removing the dam now would mitigate those risks.
“Being where the mountains meet the sea, there is very little opportunity when there is a very extreme rain event for water to efficiently absorb into the watershed or to make it to the ocean. So we really need to look at preparedness and part of that is going to be better managing our river system,” Caler-Bell said.
The removal of the dam could also bring the potential for the passage of fish, such as alewives and blueback herring — species that live in saltwater but spawn in freshwater.
History vs. progression
The dam area and waterfall is “an incredible view, and we have happily shared it with thousands of visitors over the past 79 years. This waterfall which flows into the ocean is a Camden landmark,” said Meg Quijano, who owns the Smiling Cow, located next to the Camden Deli.
But town officials think the waterfall could still be beautiful without the dam. Since there is a steep rock ledge right below the dam, Caler-Bell said a waterfall would still exist.
For Camden Selectboard Chairman Bob Falciani, the removal of the Montgomery Dam would help “correct some of the inadvertent [environmental] sins we committed 100 years ago.”
Falciani understands that the dam and the waterfall have become an attraction, but he does not think the dam is adding anything to the area’s natural landscape.
“Right now I don’t consider the dam a beautiful element. It’s a man-made thing,” Falciani said.
If the dam is removed, the footprint of the river at its outlet also would change. Old photos McKellar found show that at one point, the outlet flowed into a part of what is now the waterfront Harbor Park. But it’s not yet known how much the removal of the dam will impact existing infrastructure.
Both Quijano and Rothwell said there needs to be a solid plan in place before any decisions are made on the dam.
“The area we are speaking of is one of the most photographed and admired landmarks in Camden, and draws thousands of visitors each year,” Rothwell said. “We cannot afford to jeopardize the strength of our community by moving forward with a plan that doesn’t address everyone’s concerns.”
Camden has received a grant from the Maine Coastal Program to do engineering and design work for the dam, Caler-Bell said.
“So we’re coming to the point where we need to have a conversation as a community of what we want to do about the dam.”