By Tom Walsh
A patchwork quilt of intertwined issues—social, political, environmental, economic, and public safety—surround the July 24 written ballot referendum that will decide what’s to become of the Bristol Falls Dam, an iconic landmark within the Lincoln County community of Bristol since 1917.
Debate has been simmering since 2001 over whether the 12.5-foot dam on the Pemaquid River should be torn down or upgraded to accommodate new fish passages for alewives, salmon, elvers, and other fish species that migrate from the sea into inland lakes. Residents will vote at the town office on July 24 to determine whether significant funds will be invested in demolishing the dam or saving it and upgrading an existing fish ladder system that has been in place for many years.
While funding sources for either option remain somewhat uncertain, the referendum results could impact the future of one of the community’s only fresh-water swimming holes—the impoundment waters above the existing 101-year-old dam—as well as impacts on real estate values of upstream riverside properties and the fate of a large waterfowl habitat above the dam. There’s also concern about how removal of the dam would affect the water levels of a chain of lakes above the dam. Add, too, the dam removal’s impact on the primary source of fire protection water pumped into Bristol Fire Department’s tankers to knock down local fires.
Bristol Fire Chief Paul Leeman, Jr. has created a Facebook page that encourages voters to support retention of the existing dam.
“The town has used the impoundment waters above the dam for firefighting since 1945,” Leeman said. “It provides an unlimited source of fresh water, year-round, even during July and other dry times. To me, any alternative to not having that water source is very inadequate compared to what we have now.”
A straw poll of more than 100 locals attending a February public meeting on the issue showed 85 percent in favor of maintaining the existing dam. Ever since, there has been aggressive campaigning by those on both sides of the issue, complete with pro-preservation “Dam Strong” bumper stickers.
Bristol resident Slade Moore is among the other 15 percent.
“My interests are providing the facts that will help recovery of the alewife population, development of an alewife fishery, dam safety improvements, and long-term fiscal commitment reductions,” Moore said. “Strictly speaking, ‘removal’ of the dam is not one of the options under consideration. Option A is to keep the dam (and) build a new fishway. Option B is to replace it with a nature-like water control structure that maintains water levels and provides unlimited fish passage.”
Retaining the existing dam will raise the issue of how the existing fish ladder should be improved and determination of how the town will cover those costs given the elusiveness of once-plentiful grants.
“The current fish ladder is marginally effective,” says Christopher Hall, Bristol’s town administrator. “The entrance is way down stream from the dam.”
Nonetheless, he said, this year’s census of alewives migrating upstream has been at recent highs, with 250,000 “river herring” counted this year. The town hasn’t authorized the harvest of any alewives for at least 15 years. Elvers, Hall said, have a “remarkable ability to scale the 12-foot dam by their own devices.”
Bristol is wrestling with these issues in the regional shadow of what Hall characterizes as the “extremely successful” alewife restoration project at Damariscotta Mills on the larger Damariscotta River, which is a few miles west of Bristol. That project cost $1 million and involved construction of a 69-pool fish ladder that now accommodates more than 1 million migrating species annually. If Bristol constructs a similar ladder, an engineering analysis predicts 16 pools would be required, at an estimated cost of about $15,000 each, or $240,000. Hall said a local family foundation has offered to anonymously donate $200,000 toward fish ladder upgrade costs if voters opt to retain the existing dam.
“This is a pretty quiet town and deciding the best way to deal with the dam has stirred things up,” Hall said. “It’s been a divisive issue, so the selectmen decided to put it out for a referendum at a special town meeting. After the vote, it’s our job to bring the town together again.”