Harbor dredge takes priority over Yarmouth dam removal

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YARMOUTH — It hadn’t even been two days since the March 5 announcement that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would spend $3 million to dredge Yarmouth Harbor when the debate over the future of the Royal River began again.

Last week’s Town Council workshop included a 2 1/2-hour discussion of the potential removal of the river’s Bridge Street dam. When it was finished, there was little consensus as to how exactly the town would proceed.

But two things were clear: Councilors don’t intend to fund the dam’s removal with town money, and they’re not going to let anything get in the way of the federal dredge.

That likely means putting dam removal on a back burner until after the Army Corps finishes its work next fall or winter.

Even the staunchest supporters of dam removal seem to understand.

“There’s still a sense of shock and amazement that (the dredge) funding is coming though,” said Landis Hudson, executive director of Maine Rivers. “As an advocate for river restoration, I want to see things happen sooner rather than later. But it’s worth taking the time to think through all the questions and making sure people feel their concerns have been heard.”

Dredging is supposed to take place roughly every 10 years, but it hasn’t happened since 1997. Without regular dredging, sand and silt can clog the harbor, impairing boat navigability and threatening the town’s $25 million marina business.

Last week’s announcement, spurred by the advocacy of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, was a huge win for the town.

“It’s one of the best pieces of news we’ve had in Yarmouth in a long time,” Council Chairman Steve Woods said.

The potential removal of the Bridge Street dam is another project that’s been discussed for years. Those in favor of the project hope to improve fish passage and environmental conditions, while business owners worry it will increase accumulation of silt in the harbor and compound the need for dredging.

A dam removal discussion was scheduled months ago for the March 6 workshop, but the dredging announcement altered the discussion.

Several members of the public suggested the Army Corps could reverse its decision to dredge if the town decided to move forward with dam removal, although there was no evidence given to support those concerns.

More significant was a report by Henry Clauson, consultant with TRC Solutions, who was hired by marina owners to study the impacts of removing the dam. Clauson said, despite the more optimistic conclusions of a 2013 study commissioned by the town and performed by the consulting firm Stantec, there is not enough information to determine the volume and impact of contaminants, including mercury, that could flow into the harbor if the dam is removed.

During public comment, representatives from several groups who support dam removal – including the Friends of Casco Bay and the Royal River Conservation Trust – backed the need for additional chemical testing.

Testimony from Clauson and the public appeared to sway Woods, who previously endorsed moving forward with the permitting process for removing the dam.

“Kudos to Steve Woods, who really turned around that night and said we need to listen to the people because there are significant concerns,” said Deborah Delp, owner of Yankee Marina.

Woods said he was no longer in favor of voting March 27 on a resolution that would begin the dam permitting process. Instead, he drew the conversation to a close by suggesting the council craft a new resolution featuring a collaborative approach to dealing with the dam project. He mentioned possibly forming a committee.

Afterwards, Town Manager Nat Tupper had a simple way of summarizing the situation moving forward: “Dredging is a higher priority, so let’s give it some breathing room. When we’re ready to talk about the dams, here’s a list of questions we need to work on.”

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or btwist@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter:@brendantwist.