VASSALBORO — Larisa Batchelder and her family can fish, kayak or swim in their backyard, thanks to Outlet Stream, a tributary of the Sebasticook River that runs behind their home on Main Street.

But Batchelder and others are worried that could change this summer, when a proposed alewife restoration effort would remove the nearby Masse Dam, which has held the water in a pond for years and stabilized the water level in her backyard and those of her neighbors.

She and her neighbors are worried the change — the result of a state order regulating water release from China Lake — will reduce water levels, lower their property value and affect wildlife.

“We’ve waited all winter for this,” said Batchelder, 37. “We finally get to use the stream, and now someone is going to take it away.”

Officials associated with the project agree that the loss of the dam probably will mean the loss of Mill Pond, which it has been holding in place for years, but say it also will restore the health of the ecosystem.

The Alewife Restoration Initiative, a partnership of six environmental and government agencies, is aimed at allowing alewives, small migratory fish commonly used as lobster bait, to return to China Lake to spawn. Those involved with the project say the benefits are vast and that while water levels may change, there is no need for residents to be overly concerned.

Removing three dams and modifying the other three that stand between the lake and the Sebasticook will cause the stream to revert to a more natural state while still keeping with state regulations for minimum water flow, officials with the project say.

And while Mill Pond probably will disappear, the plan is expected to boost the health of the stream and of China Lake — which is damaged by phosphorus levels that the little fish are expected to help alleviate — as well as help restore alewives to their natural habitat, which now is blocked by dams that were put in place to power mills along the stream.

“It’s a really exciting project and a rare opportunity to restore a large number of migratory fish, particularly alewives,” said Landis Hudson, executive director of Maine Rivers, one of the six groups that make up the ARI. “In the big picture, this is part of a larger restoration effort that’s been going on for many years.”

MAKING A COMEBACK

Efforts to restore the alewife population in central Maine are not new. Since the removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta in 1999 and the Fort Halifax Dam in Winslow in 2008, central Maine’s alewife population has risen, and millions of the fish now make the journey inland to spawn.

In Benton, a town along the Sebasticook known for its annual alewife festival, the number of fish that have made it over the Benton Falls dam grew from 1.6 million fish in 2009 to 2.7 million in 2011.

Efforts in Vassalboro include restoration to Seven-Mile Stream, which helped bring the fish back to Webber and Three Mile ponds.

The goal of the Alewife Restoration Initiative is for the same type of growth in Vassalboro; but unlike some of the other waterways that have been targeted for migratory fish restoration, water flows in Outlet Stream and China Lake have been strictly regulated since the mid-1980s to protect the health of the water and aquatic life.

In 2000, the state dropped the minimum water flow from the lake to 10 cubic feet per second, and while normal water flow levels vary, the amount of water flowing through Outlet Stream most often varies between 15 and 20 cubic feet per second, according to data from the Kennebec Water District, which monitors the levels of China Lake and the amount of water that flows out of the lake.

ARI officials said they will be required to continue to comply with the state’s minimum flow requirements, which are unlikely to change because of the project.

But some residents say the dam removal will mean that even the same amount of water flowing through the area will translate to a change in the stream.

“It’s going to be a giant mud hole,” said resident Janet Babb, whose backyard borders the stream. “I’m not excited about it. I don’t think anyone who lives next to the stream is.”

Jeff LaCasse, manager of the Kennebec Water District, said that while the stream will still exist, the impoundments, or ponds, created behind the dams almost certainly will disappear.

“Some of the residents feel they shouldn’t lose those impoundments, but you’re not going to have those if you get rid of the dams,” he said.

Charlie Hartman, who lives close to Mill Pond — the pond created by the Masse Dam — said she, too, is worried about the affects of dam removal.

“We’re not against getting the alewives to China Lake, but we’d like to see the process done in a thoughtful and environmentally friendly manner,” Hartman said. “I’m concerned about whether that has been the case and whether it’s going to be.”

Removal of the Masse, Morneau and Lombard dams is scheduled to take place this summer or in the early fall.

Two other dams — the Box Mill Dam and the Mill Stream Dam — will be modified to accommodate alewives after the dams’ owner, Ray Bretton, opposed removal because of their proximity to a popular swimming hole and recreation area that was created by the dams.

Don Robbins, who owns the Masse Dam, could not be reached for comment, but Hudson said the possibility of a fish ladder at the dam was not feasible.

“The costs of engineering, building and long-term maintenance of a fishway at the site of the Masse Dam have been taken into consideration,” Hudson said in an email. “Also, while technical fishways can work very well in some sites, they generally tend to be less efficient than an open flowing river or stream in terms of their ability to pass fish.”

WATERWAY AS HABITAT

Some area residents also have said they are concerned about the effect of wildlife in the ponds created by the dams, particularly ducks and other waterfowl that have made the stream their home, as well as the possible introduction of non-native fish species.

Dwayne Rioux, a registered Maine Guide and outdoor writer who lives in Winslow, said residents are right to be concerned about the proposed dam removal, which he said will increase the likelihood of non-native fish species migrating up stream.

“When you introduce these exotic fish species, it screws up your whole fishery,” Rioux said. “If you’re going to gain something, you also have to look at what you’re going to lose.”

But officials from ARI say they plan to prevent the introduction of white catfish, common carp and northern pike into the stream via plans for a sorting station at the Mill Stream dam.

Jeff Nichols, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, another organization comprising ARI, said, “Restoring a natural water course has been shown to provide a more diverse and robust ecology, and to improve overall habitat.”

Hartman, a financial analyst who lives along a pond near the Masse Dam, said she has seen water levels go down if there is a leak in the dam or if it is lowered for repairs, and said there has been little communication with residents about what will happen if the dam is removed, even though officials say there have been several public meetings at the East Vassalboro Grange hall, and more communication with the public is planned.

“This is a wonderful habitat for ducks and beavers,” she said. “All of those habitats would disappear, and I think that would be horrible. I love this pond.”

Hudson said that in general, wildlife benefits from a healthier ecosystem and stronger food chain — which are expected to come from the project.

“What you have with dams and culverts is, you basically take a river or a stream that should be naturally connected, that creatures can move through, and you chop it up into a series of segments and it’s overall not connected and it’s not as resilient,” she said.

CHINA LAKE HEALTH

Officials also have said that the alewife restoration will do wonders to restore the health of China Lake, considered one of the area’s most damaged because of high phosphorus levels.

Environmental officials told the Morning Sentinel last year that the reintroduction of alewives could be a game-changer. Anecdotally, bringing alewives back to nearby Webber Pond in Vassalboro and Three Mile Pond in China has resulted in noticeably cleaner water, Jennifer Irving, executive director of the Sebasticook Regional Land Trust, said last year.

“We can’t promise that it’s going to happen, but that’s the experience in other lakes in Maine,” she said.

Too much phosphorus, which is caused by development along water bodies, including human waste and fertilizer, causes algae blooms that choke the life out of lakes.

Young alewives spending the summer in the lakes eat zooplankton, which live on phosphorus. When the alewives leave after the summer is over, they take the phosphorus with them.

A few generations of migrating fish eventually can make a dent in lakes with excess phosphorus, such as Webber Pond, the Morning Sentinel reported in August.

Efforts to clean up Vassalboro’s Webber Pond got a huge boost when alewives returned, many connected to that effort have said.

A cleaner China Lake would benefit the 22,500 customers of the Kennebec Water District from Waterville, Winslow, Fairfield, Benton and Vassalboro who rely on the lake for their drinking water, officials have said.

“It would be great to think that in my lifetime, through this initiative, we could see the water quality turn around,” said Scott Pierz, president of the China Lake Association, last year.

“It’s an opportunity now, with this partnership, to propagate alewives here and reverse the deterioration in the lake we’ve seen for decades,” he said.

COMMUNITY SUPPORT

Beth Callahan, project manager for the Bureau of Land Resources in the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said the Outlet Stream project was approved for grant funding through the department’s Maine Natural Resource Conservation Program in December and that an approval committee had no environmental concerns about the project at the time of review.

Before the start of the project, the department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will review a restoration plan and a Natural Resources Protection Act application also will need to be submitted.

Callahan said last week that the department has not received the application yet.

Many members of the community, as well as the six groups involved in the coalition, have said they support the project, Hudson said, and they hope to get more people on board.

The project recently received financial support from the town of Vassalboro, where selectmen voted to support the ARI project with $85,000 in economic development money. The money was approved May 5 after a public hearing in April. No one spoke against the project at the public hearing, Town Manager Mary Sabins said.

Residents at the 2015 Town Meeting also voted to give money to the effort.

The town also stands to make some of that money back. Communities with alewife runs have a legal right to harvest the fish and contract professional fishermen to manage the annual catch. Vassalboro was expected to make $18,000 in 2015 from the contract.

But not everyone is convinced of the project’s merits.

Bill and Roxanne Pullen own property along the stream across from the garage they operate, Freddie’s Used Cars and Body Shop, on Main Street near the Masse Dam. They said they think the motivation behind the alewife restoration is mostly commercial, not environmental, and they don’t want to see the area change.

“It’s not like we’re against the alewives,” Roxanne Pullen said. “We just don’t want to lose the ducks and other wildlife.”

“We don’t want to lose our scenic town with a stream running through it,” Bill Pullen said.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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