YARMOUTH — Rivers are pretty, democracy sometimes is not.
That was the lesson imparted on two international visitors, in town Tuesday to learn more about the Bridge Street and East Elm Street dams and ongoing discussions about removing or preserving them.
“It has taken us two years, and it may take us another two years,” Council Chairman Steve Woods told Thai civil engineer Supapap Patsinghasanee and foreign relations official Kanokwan Yoowong about deciding the future of two dams owned by the town for about 40 years.
Yoowong and Patsinghasanee, both government officials, were participating in a U.S. Department of State International Visitor Leadership Program entitled “Water Resources Protection in the U.S.: A Project for Thailand.”
They were joined by Maureen Hurley, who directs the international visitors program for the nonprofit World Affairs Council of Maine, and Washington, D.C.-based interpreter Bruce Huston.
The visitors were invited to Maine by the World Affairs Council of Maine, and will also be learning about water preservation efforts in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Phoenix and Sacramento, Calif. In Yarmouth they were greeted by Woods and Landis Hudson, executive director of Maine Rivers.
Patsinghasanee, who works for the Water Crisis Prevention Center in Bangkok, said Thai dams dwarf the 10-foot-high and 12-foot-high structures spanning the Royal River. Then he also noted policy decisions do not involve as many local and federal governmental agencies as the prospect of dam removal will in Yarmouth.
Woods noted councilors have decided to continue looking into possible funding for studies about the effects of removing both dams, which once powered industry. No decision about removing or keeping the dams has been made, he emphasized.
Dam removal could lead to habitat restoration for species in the 26-mile long river and its watershed, but Woods noted the permitting process for any dam removal will involve a host of state and federal agencies. Locally, the topic has generated strong opinions for and against, he said.
“We are dealing with science and engineering, but some of it gets emotional,” Woods said.
To elaborate on the contrasts of local debate, Woods said he has heard from longtime residents who view the dams as integral to town history and culture. He also received a petition with 200 signatures gathered by Yarmouth High School students seeking removal of the dams.
Yoowong is an official in the Thai Bureau of International Cooperation Department of Water Resources. As Hudson led a presentation about the history of the dams and possible environmental consequences and benefits of removing them, she asked how the public was educated about the issues involved.
“Sometimes I just call groups and ask them if I can come and speak,” Hudson said.
With vintage photos, copies of reports and studies, and local documents almost 180 years old, Hudson and Woods provided lessons in local history and the process that might lead to the removal of the dams.
Woods and Hudson said more study on potential riverbank erosion, silt buildup in the lower stretches of the river, and the possible existence of contaminants left over from the industrial heyday of river use is needed before any permit applications are made.
The visit culminated with a walk to the fish passage on the Bridge Street Dam while Hudson pointed out how the river area has changed from industrial to recreational use.
Repairing fish passages constructed in the early 1970s has been suggested by supporters of keeping the dams, but Hudson said her research has revealed area residents were concerned about a lack of fish upstream in the Royal River about 180 years ago.
While noting the process is protracted and expensive, Hudson said dam removal is a trend in America. Woods agreed, adding a common practice of damming rivers two centuries ago has fallen out of favor for many reasons.
“A dam project today would not be permitted,” he said.
Landis Hudson, left, executive director of Maine Rivers, gives a tour of the Bridge Street dam in Yarmouth Tuesday to visitors Kanokwan Yoowong, center, and Supapap Patsinghasanee. Both are Thai government officials participating in a U.S. State Department program on water resource protection.
Maine Rivers Executive Director Landis Hudson, left, and Yarmouth Town Council Chairman Steve Woods, second from right, show Thai government officials Kanokwan Yoowong, second from left, and Supapap Patsinghasanee, artifacts, documents and photos Tuesday about the Bridge Street and East Elm Street dams.