FARMINGTON — Local and federal officials are clashing about the best way to handle the ongoing erosion of a riverbank of the Sandy River.

Town Manager Richard Davis says that delaying a bank stabilization project could cause Whittier Road to collapse into the Sandy River below.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned that the project could threaten the Atlantic salmon at a critical point of a multimillion-dollar effort to save the endangered species.

The town has been trying to get approval for the work since April, but the window is closing quickly. If the $277,170 stabilization project isn’t completed by Sept. 30, which marks the beginnings of the salmon’s run, it will have to be delayed until next year. The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced this week that it does not consider the situation an emergency, which means that it doesn’t qualify for an expedited process.

Both sides say they understand where the other is coming from.

“Certainly I’ve got nothing against salmon,” Davis said. “They probably should be a consideration, but the issue that these people don’t seem to understand is that if this does collapse, this is probably going to create a lot more problems for the salmon habitat because silt is going to go in, in huge quantities.”

“I feel for the people in that area,” said Laury Zicari, field supervisor for the wildlife service. “They’ve got a problem, but somebody needs to work with that at an ecosystem level. They need help from somebody.”

The solution for both the town and the salmon seems to be wrapped up in a bureaucracy that doesn’t receive enough funding to move efficiently.

Saving salmon

In 2009, lawmakers expanded the definition of protected salmon habitat in Maine to include the freshwater rivers and streams in which the fish spawn. The Sandy River is a key spawning ground.

“The Sandy River is the one great hope for the whole Merrymeeting Bay salmon project,” Zicari said.

Without free access to the entire river, nothing will allow the salmon to thrive in the wild.

“The trick about these salmon is that they are up and down the rivers for their lives,” Zicari said. “They spawn way up in the headwaters. Then they make the mighty journey out to sea and then swim back up the river to spawn.”

In order to clear the way for the salmon, millions of dollars have been spent to improve their access and remove obstacles including dams.

“They planted almost a half-million eggs in the headwaters of the Sandy River so that the survivors would be able to swim through the very area we’re talking about and go out to sea,” Zicari said.

By law, the government has a responsibility to ensure that any new construction on the river doesn’t undermine that effort.

Underfunded bureaucracy

JoAnn Mooney, the state’s hazard mitigation officer, said federally funded projects must prove that they don’t violate 14 federal laws, including the National Historic Preservation Site Act, the Clean Air Act, the Farmlands Protection Act, the Clean Water Act, the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act and the Endangered Species Act. The approval process for each item is managed by a different federal entity.

“There are more regulations and policies than you could ever want to see to protect a species that is in such peril,” Zicari said.

In this case, Davis said, the cumbersome review process is downright dangerous.

“I’m just afraid that the outcome is going to be ultimately that we lose the road,” he said.

The Whittier Road project could violate the Endangered Species Act, which is causing the wildlife service to move cautiously before approving the project.

Zicari said the process is complicated but necessary to ensure the preservation of the species.

The exchange between the emergency agency and the wildlife service is “sort of like a dance,” Zicari said.

First, the agency offers an opinion on whether the project is likely to create an impact — which, in this case, it did. Then the wildlife service reviews the information and rules on whether they agree, which it also did.

The agency then produces a biological assessment that includes all of the project’s likely effects. The wildlife service then reviews the assessments, and any differences of opinion need to be sorted out.

Finally, the wildlife service provides a biological opinion, which will determine whether the project can go forward. There might be no projected impact, or there might be an impact that is considered acceptable. The applicant sometimes receives a permit allowing a certain number of salmon to be killed.

“If the projects are so significant that they endanger the fish population, we have to ask that they be changed to protect the fish from going extinct,” Zicari said.

The time to process applications is lengthened dramatically, according to Zicari, because of a lack of manpower needed to do the work.

Zicari said less than one full-time person is assigned with processing all projects in the state.

“She is working on a number of Department of Transportation projects which are backlogged,” Zicari said. “She just got a batch of 29 different projects this week.”

Environmental impact

In a bit of irony, the proposed construction project along Whittier Road uses a new stabilization strategy that is meant to be friendly to the environment.

Farmington seeks to shore up the bank using rootwads — 20-foot-long bottoms of trees that are driven into the bank with their intact root balls facing outward to catch silt and hold the soil.

Davis said that the project will help, not hurt, the overall health of the habitat, particularly if the alternative is watching the road tumble into the river.

“That’s why we were taking a different approach with these rootwads,” he said. “They replenish the vegetation.”

The project’s nature doesn’t give it a free pass on being reviewed, Zicari said. She expressed a concern about water velocity.

“At each bend, the river is eroding the bank,” she said. “If you harden the bank and respond, the velocity of the water bounces off and goes to somebody else’s land. They’re probably going to need to talk to a hydrologist to talk about what hardening the riverbank could do to the river.”

Davis disagrees. The rootwads, he said, don’t have the kind of effect that other projects do.

“They don’t increase the velocity of the water,” he said.

Ultimately, Zicari said, the issues surrounding the Whittier Road project in Farmington are a symptom of a larger, underlying problem.

“The salmon are really the least of their problem,” she said. “You have humans trying to live in a floodplain.”

Zicari said the entire area should be assessed, possibly by the Army Corps of Engineers, to come up with a regional plan for managing the ecosystem. Anything less, she said, is simply putting out fires until the next issue comes along.

“The town can’t go through this over and over,” Zicari said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287

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