YARMOUTH – The Royal River is full of stories. There are stories about the chicken factory that spewed feathers and guts into the river for years. I’m told that there’s a cannon in the river near the Beth Condon footbridge, the last chapter in a series of pranks between Yarmouth and Freeport teenagers.
My kids are particularly fascinated by the story of Daniel Mitchell, who grew up along the banks of the Royal River. In 1751, as a 9-year-old boy, Daniel was sent to bring the family cows in for the night. Instead of coming home with cows, he was kidnapped by Native Americans and did not return home until he was 17 years old.
And the Sparhawk Mill? Apparently it has a ghost.
There are conversations happening now in Yarmouth about removing the two town-owned dams in the Royal River. Analysis and discussion of the town’s options have been under way for years. These conversations draw many people to their memories of the river, and ask us all to envision its future.
As the first two dams in the watershed, these break the river-to-ocean connection for sea-run fish such as salmon, shad, alewives and eel that must move between salt water and fresh water to survive. The town’s decisions will have a direct impact on 22 miles of river habitat above these dams and many more miles of tributaries.
Science tells us that rivers are very resilient and respond well to restoration. It’s not just fishermen, kayakers and joggers in Royal River Park who are interested in a free-flowing river. A whole host of creatures from insects to birds to whales benefit from restoration.
Scientists and communities are working throughout the Gulf of Maine to reconnect freshwater and marine ecosystems and to halt the precipitous decline of migratory sea-run fish populations and rebuild the collapsed fisheries. Recent news about the further decline of cod stocks makes it imperative that we continue to use sound science to determine the pros and cons of dam removal.
The Royal River is valuable. We all agree on this. A recent study released by The Nature Conservancy looked at dams in 13 Northeastern states. The dams in Yarmouth ranked in the top 5 percent of more than 14,000 dams surveyed as being restoration priorities for migratory fish. This is remarkable.
Yarmouth’s two dams are relics of an industrial age. The small amount of hydropower produced at the Bridge Street Dam does not generate enough revenue to justify keeping it. Both dams have broken fishways.
Federal agencies have indicated an interest in funding river restoration work, work that could include removing one or both dams, but won’t fund fixing fishways.
Luckily, other Maine communities, including Falmouth, Orrington, Newport, Brewer, Winslow, Wiscasset and Augusta, have gone through the dam removal process before us, and we can learn from their experiences.
The dams are a familiar part of the landscape, and it’s hard for many to invite change. I respect all opinions.
The town’s youth invite change, and invite a resilient river. More than 100 Yarmouth High School students in favor of restoring the river signed and delivered a petition to the Town Council.
Over time, gravity and weather will dislodge and breach dams, but whether this happens in a severe weather event next year or slowly over decades, we can’t know.
Yarmouth has already worked with experts to study key issues. With the Royal River Conservation Trust and the town of Yarmouth, we at Maine Rivers have hosted several well-attended workshops and meetings.
Most of the remaining questions that require answers are related to the East Elm Street Dam. People deserve to know what the section of the river above that dam would look like if the river were free-flowing.
More work needs to be done on hydrology and sediments. Neither I nor others would support dam removal that presents risks of release of toxic sediments. Completed studies on the Bridge Street Dam show no connection between contamination and dam removal.
Dam removal can be complicated — technically and emotionally — but the results of the town research to date and review by state and federal agencies are promising. I urge the Town Council to vote for continued investigation in order to maintain a constructive and informed dialogue. Yarmouth is poised to make a real difference
If the Royal River could talk, what would the river say about removing the dams? The river would say yes. Remove the dams and restore the natural flow of the river.
Landis Hudson is executive director of Maine Rivers, which is based in Yarmouth.