While tensions have risen at times over conflicting points of view belonging to various stakeholders, options to consider for the Whiting Mill Pond dam's future are being gathered as part of the process undertaken by Downeast Salmon Federation as the site's new owner. Preliminary engineering studies conducted on the three dams located at Whiting Mill Pond, the former Lubec Water and Electric Light Company site at the Orange River flowage and at Rocky Lake were presented and discussed at a meeting held at the Whiting Town Office on February 2. About 30 people were present, with about a third representing the study's sponsor, Downeast Salmon Federation (DSF), as well as its partner organization, Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT).
The new ownership of the Whiting Mill Pond and dam by DSF has caused Whiting selectmen to fear the potential loss of a 200‑year cultural icon and the town's fire suppression system. The pond as fire suppression system is also used by partner communities, including Lubec and Dennysville, and allows for a better fire insurance rating for Whiting, Trescott and parts of Edmunds than they might otherwise receive. With memories of a devastating forest fire in the 1980s still very much present, the potential loss of the pond, even if replaced with a combination of tanks and stand‑alone dry hydrants, has caused enough alarm for the town voters to have approved a water level ordinance, now under review by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
Dwayne Shaw, DSF executive director, welcomed the full house, mentioning the presence of DSF board members and members from MCHT and Downeast Coastal Conservancy. Before turning the meeting over to Wright‑Pierce engineer and senior project manager Joseph McLean, Shaw mentioned that his nonprofit had been in discussions with the Whiting Mill Pond's owner for many years about the dam and fishway.
Jacob van de Sande, project manager with MCHT, who has been working with DSF, said in an interview that DSF, MCHT and representatives from Washington County Council of Governments and Sunrise County Economic Council had met with the Town of Whiting back in 2015 to discuss the Whiting Mill Pond dam and fish passage. "The concern that dam removal was a foregone conclusion is not the case. That's why we're going through this process," he says. MCHT contributed funds to the DSF purchase of the Whiting property. It does not have an ownership stake, but in 2014 MCHT expanded its strategic plan to include rivers that have an impact on the coastal communities within its mission area, including the Orange River.
Three dam studies to date
"This is a progress meeting to talk about what we've done to date," said project manager McLean. He added that he was particularly interested in hearing concerns and questions, with DSF staff member Kyle Winslow ready to take down audience input, which would then be added to a spreadsheet of information. McLean noted that the presentation would be broken into four segments: an overall introduction to the fish native to the rivers and bays of the region, fishways and dams in general; then the three dam sites, with each discussed separately. The presentation may be viewed on the DSF website, <https://mainesalmonrivers.org/orange‑river‑restoration‑project/>. Project breakdowns of costs for different scenarios of the Whiting dam repair, demolition or reconstruction were reviewed in the January 27 edition of The Quoddy Tides.
As McLean moved into discussion of the three dam sites, starting with the two Rocky Lake dams and moving downstream, he noted that with each addition to the system, habitat and watershed expanded outward with connecting areas for fish and wildlife reproduction.
The Rocky Lake dam is actually comprised of two that end up with combined flowage just downstream of Halls Mills Road. In 2005 they were reconstructed and are "in very good condition and have adequate spillway capacity." The lake has 1,555 acres for recreational use. Water level changes through dam and spillway alterations would have a major impact, including property financial damages. McLean noted that the dam was a "good candidate" for a nature‑like fish passage because of the low height of the dam. The "trick will be to get the fish to pick the right direction." He pointed to the juncture where the two flow streams connect into one, and suggested that the flowage from the smaller dam near the boat ramp would probably make the most sense as the fishway for directing fish in their "choice."
Moving to the dam site of the former Lubec Water and Electric Light Company, McLean noted that the major spillway is of relatively new concrete, unlike the older section, a "poor quality structure." The impoundment, he pointed out, is a designated site of statewide significance and is managed by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The impoundment creates wetland replenishment, he said, and if that were to change by gateway management and impoundment drawdown, he expected the state to weigh in.
Rich Bard, executive director of the Downeast Coastal Conservancy, explains in an interview that his primary reason for being at the meeting was because his organization is a "significant landowner in the watershed," with over 500 acres in the area. However, he also supports the process being used of professional studies and researching "all the options" rather than "just making a decision and doing it without listening."
Surprises sometimes come up with research, and one that was not expected is that the dam at the former Lubec water and electric site may not be owned by the state as previously thought. While DSF is the new owner of the Whiting Mill Pond dam, the other two dams have been maintained by the state and were thought to be owned by them. McLean told the audience that ownership is being discussed and researched by the state. The dam itself could have its spillway conditions improved by removal of the old section of the dam and the addition of a fishway.
Getting to the Whiting dam, McLean noted that the height of the dam is the tallest of the three, meaning that maintained at that height, whether new or repaired, would mean that a "nature‑like" fishway would take a substantial amount of acreage. Therefore a structural fishway would be the most likely for consideration if the dam were to be maintained or reconstructed at its current format.
In an interview McLean notes that "partial dam removal is still being considered. That will be further discussed at our next public meeting when we are discussing fish passage design concepts." He explains that "this type of compromise scenario could retain some impoundment for fire suppression, as well as preserve cultural/historic structure. However, optimal fish passage structures will still be a challenge. In fact, it is likely that this may be one of the more complex -- from a design standpoint -- and expensive."
Alternative fire suppression systems
Of particular interest to the selectmen, who had not seen the latest iteration of the Wright‑Pierce report by the time of the February 2 meeting, were the eight potential sites for an alternative fire suppression system. McLean stresses, "These are just conceptual designs that are intended to provide a sense of what it may take to develop additional fire suppression water supply sites" in the service area of the Whiting Volunteer Fire Department. "These will be helpful to develop order of magnitude costs and scope for the potential system improvements. However, additional detailed design will be required to determine suitability for the individual sites. This would likely include investigations into subsurface soil conditions and determination of easements/property acquisitions, as well as a variety of other design details."
"The insurance rating could be improved if you had more water sources," McLean suggested to the selectmen. The alternate fire suppression designs included: a series of four connected 50,000-gallon tanks alongside Route 1 at the site of the Whiting Mill Pond; dry hydrants with turn‑around sites at the Indian Lake boat ramp, the Rocky Lake boat ramp and the Little Augusta boat launch turn‑out on Route 1 with access to the saltwater inlet; using the existing fire pond at Yellow Birch Road and existing fire pond at Orange Lake Road and Route 1; building a cistern location on Route 189; tapping into Reynolds Brook on Route 1; and building a dry hydrant and cistern at Crane Mill Reservoir on Route 1. Most of these sites would require turn‑around work and dry‑hydrant installation, as well as easement and permitting work.
Former Whiting Fire Chief Craig Smith is unimpressed with the potential line‑up. In an interview he says, "We already have access to many other sites, but they have to be plowed, they can't be freezing up." He adds, "We have looked at all these sites before." Frustrated by the lack of understanding of what it takes to maneuver tanker trucks and firefighting equipment, he said it takes a long time to drive to a place like Indian Lake, and to turn around takes time. And time, he stresses, is the enemy of firefighters.
David Wilder, with over 30 years of professional firefighting experience under his belt, agrees. "The fire suppression system that Whiting has right now is one of the best I've ever seen, and it would be a sin to lose it."
The selectmen also were not particularly reassured by the alternative fire suppression system sites. Mary Alice Look says, "It's not good."
While one audience member suggested that it sounded good to her since it was closer to her property, a selectman turned to two DSF board members and asked point blank why they bought the Whiting dam. DSF board Vice President Don Sprangers replied, "We want the fish passage on the river." The selectman retorted, "What about the people?" Torah Johnson, DSF board treasurer, joined in and stressed that it wasn't an either/or situation. "We're trying to get what people need" along with the fish. "But we have to have reports to help us understand" all the options. Shaw then reiterated, "All these things are connected. We're trying to figure out what are all the options, all the things we need to think about."
Listening to find creative solutions
Downeast Coastal Conservancy's Rich Bard notes it is often through the act of listening that creative solutions start to work their way into the conversation. "Listening to people is incredibly important C being open to people and open to creativity." While every situation is unique, he adds that within the land conservation world "more and more it's about listening. Land is important to people," and changes to it will "affect now and into the future." He feels that Johnson's effort to stress that it was not an either/or situation was important. "It can really be about finding a shared solution."
Selectperson Mary Alice Look hopes that a creative solution can be found that will meet the needs of people and fish. She's concerned that some newer residents, without the memory of the 1980s forest fire, will not understand the importance of the mill pond and its sheer volume of water. She also is concerned about the potential loss of the town's character. "We really see this as destroying the heart of the town. We want to work with DSF. We've told them we would work with them, we would do whatever we could with grants, with volunteers." She points out, though, that the selectmen would have to go to the town's voters for permission on funding. "We've told them over and over again, we're not opposed to fish, but we do not want the dam out of there and the mill pond drained."
Dr. Harold Crosby, from a Whiting family who settled in the region in 1793 and since 1886 has had a number of generations live in a house right across from the mill pond, would like to see alewives going upstream again, but he doesn't want to see the dam go either. "It's been there since 1830. It's been a part of the town, and I'd hate to see it go out. It's important for people like me that have lived here for a long time." He adds, "I'm one of the few people who remembers it as a working dam."