From the Senate

Time to consider unintended consequences of opening Sheepscot Dam

Posted:  Tuesday, February 13, 2018 - 7:15am
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In the Maine Legislature, there are times we need to take immediate action to address emergencies, and other occasions where we need to take a step back and wait for additional, crucial information to become available.

A bill now in front of lawmakers, LD 922, “An Act Directing the Commissioner of Marine Resources To Investigate the Conditions of Sheepscot Pond Related to a Management Plan for Anadromous Fish Species” is an example of the latter.

Essentially, the proposal directs the Commissioner of Marine Resources to open the dam on the Sheepscot Pond in Palermo every year from April 15 to June 30.

As is the case with so many proposals, the intention is good: to increase the population of important migratory fish species such as alewives and salmon into the region. It has the backing of several groups such as the Nature Conservancy, the Alewives Association, and the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

But many of the people I serve in Lincoln County are rightfully concerned about the unintended consequences of opening the dam. Among the biggest fears is flooding. There are numerous year-round homes along Long Pond in Somerville, which is downstream from the Sheepscot Pond. Increasing the water flow at the height of flood season significantly raises the possibility of water causing permanent damage to these residences, particularly when you consider they already live in designated flood zones.

There are other concerns with this immediate manipulation of the water levels. While people who live in the affected areas could be subjected to exceedingly high water levels in the spring, they could also see dangerously low water levels in the summer due to the drop in water levels on the Sheepscot Pond following the opening of the dam. Among the problems associated with low water levels are dry docks and the spread of algae, which also threaten property values.

There are also potential problems with the introduction of invasive species such as lamprey eels into Long Pond.

The problem with this bill is that we don’t know what we don’t know. The dam at Sheepscot Pond has been around for decades, and at this point, it is impossible to know what the full environmental and economic impact of unleashing this new flow of water would be.

During the first public hearing on this bill last year, lobbyists came to testify about the benefits of opening the dam. Then, as word began to spread about the proposal more, concern among those who live in the area became more engaged. Last week, there was another public hearing for this bill, and so many people showed up to voice their concerns that an overflow room was necessary to accommodate them.

There is no doubt in my mind that increasing the population of anadromous fish species in the region and allowing them to access their natural habitat would be of enormous benefit, but before we consider drastic actions to achieve this, I would suggest exploring more practical approaches.

The first one that comes to mind is the Damariscotta Mills Fish Ladder. This project has proved to be an unprecedented success. In addition to allowing alewives travel upstream to spawn every spring, it also serves as a wonderful tourist destination, pumping money into the local economy.

As I hear from my constituents and continue to learn more about the potential impacts of opening this dam, it has become clear to me that we need to take a step back and take a closer look at this bill as it makes its way through the legislative process in Augusta.

If you have any questions or comments about this or any other bill the Maine Legislature is considering, I can be reached at (207)287-1500 or dana.dow@legislature.maine.gov.

Senator Dana Dow (R-Lincoln) represents Maine Senate District 13 and serves on the Legislature’s Taxation and Insurance and Financial Affairs Committees.