YARMOUTH — The Yarmouth Town Council voted unanimously Jan. 21 to approve the first phase of studies of the Royal River by the Army Corps of Engineers. The studies will show the costs and risks of potentially removing the two town-owned dams on the Royal River, located near Bridge Street and Elm Street, and cost-effective alternatives if removing the structures is not a viable option.

According to a draft resolution by the council, the dams hold no commercial value and barricade fish migration, blocking access to up to 71 miles of river habitat and 135 miles of reproductive and nursery habitat for migratory fish species. The Army Corps of Engineers has undertaken a federal assessment to see if the town is eligible to receive assistance from the corps to investigate options for ecosystem restoration in the Royal River watershed.

According to Town Manager Nat Tupper, $55,000 of town money will be used to complete the studies, which are estimated to take 18 months to complete. If the town decides to continue with the process, the town will be responsible for 35% of the cost of construction, with the remaining 65% covered by the corps.

The initial phase will include an analysis of the water cycle and the dams’ hydraulics,  along with sediment sampling, which is budgeted at $180,000 of the corps’ total budget of $650,000.

Yarmouth has been interested in restoring natural flow to the Royal River for years, and first requested a feasibility study from the Army Corps of Engineers in 2013. But not all groups in the community were on board when the conversation started, especially the local marinas.

“Our primary concern has always been dredging and sediment,” Deborah Delp, president of the Yankee Marina and Boatyard, said. 

A boat in the Royal River about five years ago, before the last dredge at Yankee Marina and Boatyard. According to Deborah Delp, marina president, the listing is due to the impact of excess sediment. Contributed / Deborah Delp

Over time, bodies of water can fill with sediment and other materials that have been washed downstream, requiring periodic dredging to remove obstructions, according to the National Ocean Service.

If the dams are removed, the flow of the river will quicken, digging deeper into the bottom of river and disposing more sediment into the marinas.

“It’s scary because you don’t know if some contaminant ended up in your sediment due to no fault of your own that now you’re responsible for,” Delp said. “So our concern was, should the dam come out when they hadn’t done the proper testing, we were going to get a lot more sediment and it could be contaminated beyond what we thought.”

According to Delp, in the past, the Army Corps of Engineers was not really involved in attempts to remove the dams. Now that they’re in charge of managing the whole project and conducting the studies, Delp says the marinas feel much more comfortable with the prospect of removing the dams.

Henry Clauson, an environmental and business consultant at Ramboll in Portland, was hired to represent the three town marinas and Town Landing.

“The marinas are not opposed to the dam removals if the exploration of such is done transparently and collaboratively, involving the greater community.” Clauson said at the Jan. 21 council meeting. “The Army Corps’… program is definitely the right thing to support for Yarmouth due to its inclusive process based on science and the comprehensive means by which it considers the harbor, the upstream conditions and most, if not all, of the community’s concerns.”

“We’re bringing together a lot of groups on an issue that’s been divisive for so long,” Councilor Robert Waeldner said at the meeting. “When I first joined the council a little over six years ago, one of the first votes the council took was to stop considering this issue and I know that didn’t please a lot of folks in town. So I see this as a really positive way that we can bring everyone together and work together towards a common goal with the Army Corps assistance.”

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