A cofferdam, seen at left beyond the blue tarp, was flooded and damaged during heavy rain Dec. 14. Courtesy photo

WESTBROOK — A cofferdam aiding in the removal of the Sappi dam was damaged when it was flooded by heavy rain a few weeks ago, but work at Saccarappa Falls is still on track, a Sappi spokesman says.

The Dec. 14 flooding, caused by heavy rains that weekend, took out part of the lower cofferdam.

A cofferdam is an enclosed area built within a body of water that pumps water out of a given area allowing for construction.

“The recent rain event did damage a lower cofferdam at our Saccarappa Dam Removal and Fishway Project,” said Barry Stemm, Sappi engineer manager. “Some work will be delayed until the cofferdam can be repaired, but this will not negatively impact the planned project completion date in early 2021.”

Work to remove the headwalls of the dam began around July 15. Sappi is continuing to remove pieces of the dams while preparing to install a natural fish ladder sometime this month and remove an old powerhouse.

“It’s a little difficult to tell from observation how it’s going, I rely on Barry and the contractors,” City Administrator Jerre Bryant said. “My understanding is that it is moving well. A flood like that is challenging especially in the winter, and if they are on schedule despite the weather challenges, I am happy.”

City Councilor Michael Shaughnessy, president of Friends of Presumpscot River, said there some heartening news came out of the high water event.

“If the partial removal of the dam wasn’t underway, this high water event would have caused some flooding up on Rousseau Road,” Shaughnessy said.

The Rousseau Road neighborhood off River Road near the Westbrook-Windham line has flooded in the past when the river is high. Because the river’s water levels were lower because of the ongoing work, it was spared this time, Shaughnessy said.

“Before the dam was removed, we had a lot of flooding. In 1996, we had water in our living space. I don’t think this would have been that bad, but typically, our house would have been surrounded with water. The dam removal really helped that,” said resident Paula Sparks.

Talks about removing the dam for the benefit of wildlife began over 20 years ago. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s ability to require fish passage and minimum water flow standards around the Presumpscot River dams – then owned by S.D. Warren Co. – as part of water quality certifications required for federal relicensing.

After years of negotiations, the city of Westbrook and Sappi, the current dam owners, were able to come to a  removal agreement, which was approved by federal regulators last April.

A close up view of the flooded cofferdam. The area behind the blue barrier should not have any water in it at all. The cofferdam is a closure within a body of water that keeps the area dry for work to be done. Courtesy photo

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