Mere Brook brook emerges from a culvert at its headwaters. Contributed photo

Note: This is the 3rd in a series of columns about Mere Brook (aka, Mare, Mair Creek). The brook is central to Brunswick, and it is federally-listed as “urban-impaired”; as such, it is in need of improved water quality, and our town has just entered year two of a Maine DEP planning grant for that improvement. As part of that grant’s work, the town hired fluvial geomorphologist John Field to conduct an assessment, which he based on a walk of the stream from source to near head of tide last June.

It is, if you are a fluvial geomorphologist, a long way to the sea, even if you begin only a few miles inland. The hours of note-making about form and flow string out like the syllables in your profession. By the time you arrive at the “gist” of the day, the shadows are long. Still, the water runs (or trickles) down; still, the Atlantic awaits.

On an early June 2020 day, we begin our stream-tracery of Mere Brook as four walkers in a stamp of woodland pinched between developments. John Field (aforementioned scientist) leads; this is his expedition. JF will report his findings to Mere Brook’s Watershed-plan Steering Committee. Following JF, and observing for reasons various, are Kristin F. (Maine DEP Project Manager), Chris B. (Cumberland County Soil District Engineer) and me (your scribe). All three of us are on the Steering Committee.

To the south, the Thornton Oaks development provides refuge for those pressing into life’s late decades; to the north, the kempt Columbia Street neighborhood stretches to McKeen Street without a hint of stream in its interior streets and lawns. But somewhere beneath those houses and streets, water gathers, susses out ground slant and begins to run southeast. Sometimes, loud relatives visit, as they do — episodically, emphatically — from storm-drains above. The whole project takes on flow; light lies to the south, a large round window of it. On maps and in mind, this main branch of Mere Brook will be born of culvert, a sort of fluvial C-section.

If you would see this brook being let into the light, you can walk there anytime, either via the streets stemming from Columbia Avenue or via a path that arrows out from Thornton Oaks. Both ways meet behind the Jade Integrated Health yoga studio, perhaps a symbol of a little karmic bliss in Mere Brook’s birth.

Bliss doesn’t last long, however, and early in our walk JF begins to note some fluvial difficulties — the bright, clear early stream, running along in live ripples, widens and slows; mucky fringes develop; it takes little imagination to see that these will be sullen, sticky waters, gasping for oxygen when the hot season arrives. “Perhaps the DO is already low,” I say, using the brook-talk I’m learning for the dissolved oxygen that’s needed to support life in water. I get an early surprise, when I hear JF say, “this reach needs some wood.”

“Wood” it turns out, means trees, either brought down naturally, or felled with intent (“chop and drop,” says JF), into the stream. Wood creates eddied flow, pools and pillows; in short, it complicates a brook, and that variety — as is often true in natural settings — helps health. So a tree-crossed brook meshed with branches can be a healthy site, as opposed to one that demands tidying up. For those of us who float in boats on water, this can be counterintuitive.

Another culprit is at work slowing and depressing Mere Brook’s early going — at Matthews Road, a few tenths of a mile downstream from first light, we reach our first road-crossing culvert, which, not being equal to the brook’s width and flow, slows the whole project. Slow water, like any weary laborer, wants to put down its burden and does — sediment carried by earlier current settles out; day after day, storm after storm, it piles up; it becomes stuck muck. The water also spreads out as it awaits its turn at the tunnel. More slow moments, more dropped sediment.

And so we have reached our first “easy fix,” an improvement that would help the brook be more itself. Replace this three-foot-wide O with a brook-wide, pebble-bottomed, head-high trapezoid, and you would have a brook merely flowing naturally beneath a road. But, when it comes to finally writing this brook-plan, we know that the S in “ea$y” really is a dollar-sign. Culverts and their complications don’t come cheap. We will find these culvert slowdowns throughout the brook’s reaches, and, almost to an O, replacement upgrades could improve the brook’s flow and health.

That, given column limits, is the story of walking the first reach (527-foot section) of the brook. In his draft report to the Steering Committee, JF breaks the brook into 17 reaches; as spring and summer come on and brook-planning proceeds, I’ll offer more stories from walking our central watershed.

Sandy Stott is a Brunswick, Maine resident, chair of the town’s Conservation Commission, and a member of Brunswick Topsham Land Trust’s Board of Directors. He writes for a variety of publications. He may be reached at [email protected]

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