A group hoping to connect China Lake to the Atlantic Ocean and restore the tiny herring species of fish called alewives has started drawing up plans for the six dams that stand in the way along Outlet Stream, which flows from the Sebasticook River through Vassalboro to the lake.

The Alewife Restoration Initiative, a partnership between a number of environmental groups, has progressed past some of the largest barriers in East Vassalboro, which included tearing down an old sawmill and relocating water pipes, but still faces large technical challenges at the Outlet Dam just before the lake and at a breeched dam by Oak Grove Road.

Alewives are eaten by nearly every other marine fish, mammal and bird, and they’re also commonly used as lobster bait. They spend most of their lives in the ocean, but migrate inland to spawn every year. The young fish, which grow to be up to a foot long, spend a few months in freshwater before heading to the ocean to continue the cycle.

“The fish are ready for us to be done,” said Landis Hudson, executive director of Maine Rivers, one of the partners in the alewife group. “We’re trying to find a balance of working as quickly as we can with doing the best, most professional and thoughtful work that we can.”

The alewife group’s permit to remove the Masse Dam in the area, which has been protested by some residents, was initially rejected by the state Department of Environmental Protection because of deficiencies.

The group later filed for an Individual Natural Resources Protection Act permit, which has been accepted as complete, according to department communications Director David Madore. The department has 90 days to approve or deny the permit, he said.

The work in that area has encountered some resistance from residents who say the dam removal will dry up the ponds in their backyards and lower their property values.

Hudson said they’re “doing their best to address the challenges,” and that they get “strong and consistent support” from people who are enthusiastic about the project.

She is not releasing the construction costs to the remove the dam at this time, she said.

The group is also designing a fish passageway at the Outlet Dam, which is where the stream and the lake meet.

The passageway will be a Denil-style fishway, Hudson said, but she didn’t yet have a cost estimate for the project.

The Kennebec Water District uses the Outlet Dam to manage the lake levels, which are mandated through an order from the Department of Environmental Protection, so it couldn’t be removed, Hudson said.

The fishway design has to be very specific for that reason, said Jeff LaCasse, general manager of the water district. They have to be able to adjust the water levels or let out water in the event of extraordinary weather, as well as perform maintenance safely, he said.

The public may also want to watch the alewives run through the fishway, he said, which poses a problem with this particular style.

The primary concern the water district had was how many alewives would enter the lake, LaCasse said, because overpopulation could have a negative effect on the water quality.

The designers were able to conceptualize a fishway that would allow in a maximum of one million, he said.

“We don’t want to get more than that number,” he said, “and I don’t think we will.”

Overpopulation could result in a fish die-off, which would mean more phosphorous in the lake and a potential odor problem.

Some people argue that alewives will improve the quality of China Lake, which has struggled for years with a reputation of being laden with phosphorous and algae blooms, by taking phosphorous out to the ocean during their migration.

While alewives may help a bit, LaCasse said he doesn’t expect they will export enough phosphorous to make a noticeable difference. The reason the water quality has improved in recent years is the lack of precipitation, he said, which has helped every lake in the state.

For this reason, the water district chose not to contribute financially to the alewife project, though it is sharing its data and its historical knowledge with the group.

The water district and the alewife group also have to discuss who will be maintaining the fishway, LaCasse said.

“It looks like it will be more time consuming than what we have available,” he said.

A fish passageway is also planned at the Ladd, or Mill Stream, Dam, which is further up the stream.

One of the most challenging sites is the Box Mill Dam, which is near Oak Grove Road and is the first dam on Outlet Stream heading toward the lake, Hudson said.

“It’s a breeched dam, so there are some remnants of a dam that are there,” she said.

Hudson said they believe that the whole stream was moved when the dam and other buildings, such as a factory, were built. It will require a lot of alterations to make the site work for the fish, she said.

Fundraising for the many projects is going alright, though, Hudson said. The alewife group has received support form the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, the Nature Conservancy in Maine, Patagonia, the Davis Conservation Foundation and the Maine Natural Resources Conservation Program. The town of China also voted to contribute $20,000 in economic development funds to the project.

“We are doing alright on funding, and it’s because people understand the potential, the restoration potential, and the value that alewives bring pretty much to every part of the ecosystem that they live in,” Hudson said, adding that it is “a lot of work” to coordinate all of the different agencies.

The work, though, is worth it, Hudson said.

“There is something enormously inspiring and powerful about the idea of bringing life back to a river and a stream and a lake,” she said. “… Honestly, (alewives) are just inspiring. The drive, the persistence, the will to live is amazing, and that’s inspiring for a lot us that work on this.”

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

mstamour@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @madelinestamour