OAKLAND — The Town Council will allow a hydro power company to remove a barrier between Messalonskee Lake and Messalonskee Stream on a trial basis this fall with certain conditions.

Council members agreed to the compromise after hearing concerns that the move could create a safety concern and also possibly reduce the lake’s population of stocked fish.

A fish screen, built between the waterways in the 1940s to prevent landlocked salmon from leaving the lake, needs to be cleaned frequently during leaf season, creating an added headache for the dam’s operators.

Because of this, Essex Hydro, owner of the dam, asked the town for permission to remove three of 20 grates from the screen to allow the leaves to bypass the barrier.

A biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife said the screen doesn’t prevent the spread of invasive fish species, because juvenile ones can easily slip through the barrier.

Ed Roderick, an Oakland resident who has declared his candidacy for the Town Council, said during the meeting that he had safety concerns about the screen removal.

He said the screen functions as a safety net that prevents swimmers and kayakers from being swept out of the lake.

“That screen is responsible for saving at least one life,” he said. “It makes it a safe area.”

The town also heard a report from Ned Hammond, a member of the Friends of Messalonskee lake association, which the town asked for input about the possible consequences of removing the screen.

Hammond expressed reservations about removing the screen.

“The state stocked 3,100 fish in Messalonskee in 2013,” he told the council. “There is no way to measure who’s going downstream when the grate is open,” he said.

During the fall, the type of fish stocked in the lake — brown trout, brook trout and splake — tend to head upstream, or toward the lake’s inlet, on the opposite side of the water body from the screen, according to Jason Seiders, regional fisheries biologist with the state wildlife department.

Hammond acknowledged the tendency, but said no one knows for sure how many fish follow it, and how many might head downstream, risking death by hydro power turbines.

Steve Schwartz, an Oakland resident and biologist who attended the meeting with Hammond, said he has seen stocked fish caught between the barrier and the turbines.

“Some fish are getting through. It could be an issue or not be an issue,” he said.

The Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance, another group the town asked for input, said it would not object as long as the state wildlife department supports the move.

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, also said he deferred to the judgment of the wildlife department.

Town Manager Peter Nielsen said the town spent resources cleaning the grate itself before Essex bought the dam in 2009. He said the company has been a good neighbor, and accommodated other requests from the town.

Town Council member Dana Wrigley said the leaf issue is worsened because people with lakefront property dump large quantities of leaves into the water, which float down and clog the screen in minutes.

The council voted to allow the dam to remove the screen on a trial basis this fall, under certain conditions.

Essex will be required to keep records of when the grates are removed, to help in reviewing the situation again next year. In addition, Essex will install a safety rope and buoy to prevent unwary swimmers of being caught in the outflow.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]