Yarmouth’s Town Council undertook the first step toward removing two dams on the Royal River, voting unanimously Thursday night to approve a resolution authorizing Town Manager Nat Tupper to enter into an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The agreement will kick-start the first phase of an aquatic habitat restoration study of the Royal River and the town dams at East Elm Street and Bridge Street. The Royal River cuts through the heart of Yarmouth village, flowing alongside Royal River Park and its River Walk pathway before forming a small pond popular with fishermen above the Bridge Street Dam. The river runs over the Bridge Street dam, near the Sparhawk Mill, before flowing under a section of Route 88 and emptying into the town’s harbor.

“I strongly support this resolution. This is an opportunity, a really good one,” Councilor Tim Shannon said. “I am optimistic that the science of the Army Corps study will be such that we can eventually proceed with the removal of both dams. Removing the dams, in my mind, would be a good thing if it can be done safely.”

Thursday’s vote committed Yarmouth to spending up to $55,000 on the first phase of the project, which will determine if removing the structures would benefit migratory fish species without harming the harbor’s marina and boatyard. Removing the dams, conservation groups say, would allow migratory fish, such as alewives and shad, to move upstream and downstream, effectively opening access to about 71 miles of river habitat and 135 miles of potential reproductive and nursery habitat.

The Army Corps of Engineers had given the town until February 2021 to make a final decision on its funding offer or threatened to reallocate federal funds to another river restoration project. The first phase will cost $180,000.

Yarmouth first approached the Army Corps about removing the dams in 2013, but it wasn’t until 2020 that the Army Corps completed its review of the project, deeming it eligible for funding under the federal 206 program that allows the Army Corps to undertake projects that restore aquatic ecosystems for fish and wildlife.

The Royal River has been harnessed since the 1700s, held back by dams to provide power and water access to lumber and paper mills, fish- and poultry-processing plants, potteries and tanneries. Now those industries are long gone and town officials have struggled for years to maintain two old dams that effectively turn 5 miles of the river into a narrow, meandering lake.

It’s what some scientists call a “fake lake,” Landis Hudson, executive director of Maine Rivers, a local nonprofit that’s dedicated to preserving, restoring and enhancing the state’s rivers, told the Press Herald in 2011.  “It looks like a lake, but it has none of the health or vitality of a natural lake'” she said. “It’s part of a whole system that has been greatly altered over the years.”

Hudson, who lives in Yarmouth, attended the council meeting Thursday night and applauded the town for sticking with the project.

“We totally support this resolution to enter the first phase of the project,” Christine Force, co-chair of the Royal River Alliance, told the council. “We’re excited about the chance to restore the health of the river.”

Henry P. Clauson, a principal at Ramboll, an environmental engineering firm, represents Yankee Marina. He said the marina supports the study provided that it is conducted with transparency and that the town works collaboratively with the marina.

The Yarmouth Boat Yard also expressed support for the Army Corps study, while citing concerns about silt and potential contaminants being washed downstream. The boatyard’s attorney, Benjamin Ford of Portland, expressed his client’s views in a letter dated Jan. 14.

“The 206 project is an opportunity for all stakeholders to move forward toward the goal of preserving and restoring habitat on a river that is so vital to our town,” Ford wrote.

Several councilors said that being able to unify the interests of all the stakeholders influenced their decision to commit to the Army Corps’ study.

“This issue has been divisive for so long,” Councilor Rob Waeldner said. “Now, we can work toward a common goal with the Army Corps’ assistance. It will cost the town money, assuming we determine that the dams should be removed.”

Tupper said the town must contribute up to $55,000 for the first phase of the study. It could be asked to contribute more money if removing the dams is determined to be feasible. The town can withdraw from the project at any point.

The issue of whether the town should remove the dams has lingered for at least a decade.

In 2011, the town started talking about the maintenance of the dams and whether to keep them. For the first time in more than a decade, the town was able to inspect the Bridge Street dam for cracks and leaks and assess the condition of an abandoned fish ladder leased to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

During a public hearing in January 2012, residents spoke against and in support of removing the dams. Some speakers said that removing the dams, which are an integral feature of Royal River Park, would harm the town’s character. A petition signed by more than 100 Yarmouth High School students in 2012 indicated that they would support removing the dams and restoring the river to its natural state.

At that hearing, Tupper said the town had spent very little on maintaining the dams. The risk would be if the dams collapsed and the town were forced by the state to remove the debris from the river.

The East Elm Street dam was built in the 1800s. The Bridge Street Dam was built in 1894, and the town has owned it since 1973. The Maine Department of Marine Resources built the fish passage on the dam in 1974 and leased it from the town. But that agreement was not renewed when it expired in 1999.

Pressure on the town to take action grew in 2018 when the Conservation Law Foundation threatened to sue Yarmouth over the dilapidated fish ladder at the Bridge Street dam. At the time, the foundation said the dams had outlived their purpose and that it needed to pressure the town to do something.

According to the town, the Army Corps has proposed spending $650,000 to undertake a study and permit approval process in an effort to improve fish habitat, water quality and fish passage on the Royal River. New or improved fish ladders or bypass channels could be incorporated into the project, which could take 18 to 36 months to complete.

The cost of removing or partially removing the dams, if deemed feasible, is not yet known.

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