My hometown: Charting a course for a river’s future

Herring. Photo by Jones River Watershed Association

Standing near the former site of the Coopers Mills dam in Maine, where the Sheepscot River narrows a bit before passing under a bridge, you’d be hard-pressed to realize the years of effort it took to remove the dam, number of people who became involved, or the many ways a river can be part of a community.

I grew up just five miles from the dam. I remember the excitement of watching river herring traverse the fish ladder, and how, each spring, fishermen would scoop up alewives returning from the sea to spawn.

Historic Coopers Mills dam in operation. Photo courtesy of the Whitefield Historical Society

Built in the early 1800s, the 185-foot-long and nearly 12-foot-tall dam supported several sawmills and a thriving lumber industry. As the era of Maine loggers passed, the last sawmill at Coopers Mills closed in 1945 and ownership of the dam passed to the Town of Whitefield.

For many years, the town’s volunteer fire department used water from the dam’s impoundment for fire suppression. Over time, the dam fell into disrepair and became a public safety hazard. Leaks in the dam left the fire hydrants inoperable during low flows in the summer. At the same time, the fish ladder became impassable, preventing almost all migrations of sea-run fish such as river herring (a commercially and recreationally important species in the state).

During low water, the fish ladder was impassable for migrating herring, who had to wait until the water rose enough to spill over the dam. Herring is the primary bait source for Maine’s lobster industry. In 2018, it represented the state’s second most valuable commercial fishery (after lobster) at nearly $18 million. Photo by Brett Towler/ USFWS

Discussions on removal of the dam were initiated by the Sheepscot River Watershed Council in the late 1990s but abandoned over concerns about lake levels and fire protection. Change is hard, too — like many small dams in rural communities, Coopers Mills dam served as a local landmark, providing us all with a sense of identity and place. It was also a great spot to learn to fish, its waters churning with fish eager to snap at any baited hook.

Partnerships and progress

In 2001, partners including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Gulf of Maine Coastal Program, Trout Unlimited, Sheepscot River Watershed Council and the Town of Whitefield worked together to find a solution that would restore fish passage, provide fire water protection, and address concerns about safety and public access. Coastal Program lead Jed Wright worked with partners to apply for grant funds to study alternatives; conducted field geomorphological survey work; coordinated economic, engineering, hydraulic and habitat analyses; and planned monitoring and public presentations. A number of options for keeping the dam intact were considered, including hydropower and repair, but no decision was made.

“In Maine, there is a deeply ingrained sense that you can always get a little more use out of something…” — Maine native and humorist Tim Sample

In 2015, as the dam continued to deteriorate, the town joined with Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association to create a plan for dam removal that improved fish passage, maintained fire protection with the installation of three fire hydrants, and took away the increasing liability of a deteriorating dam from the Town of Whitefield. To honor the dam’s cultural ties, the dam’s abutments (the support structures on each side of the river) would be preserved, foundation walls stabilized, and interpretive signs installed. In 2016, after extensive public meetings, the citizens of Whitefield voted to remove the dam and install the hydrants.

The dam removal in progress; engineering was completed by Inter-Fluve and dam demolition by Sumco. Photo by Bill Bennett/USFWS

In 2018, I visited the Coopers Mills dam with Coastal Program staff just before the removal took place. It felt funny to be back in my hometown in a professional capacity. I shared the group’s excitement (undiminished, despite 20 years of effort!) as I considered how removing this dam will benefit Whitefield — providing access to spawning and rearing habitat for Eastern brook trout, river herring, Atlantic salmon and American eel, while also maintaining public safety in Coopers Mill Village

“Our goal from day one of the project was to meet the needs of the community while improving overall river health.” — Andy Goode, Atlantic Salmon Federation

One dam at a time

Additional projects to restore access to fish spawning habitat within the watershed are in the works. Just 20 minutes south in Alna, the Sheepscot River’s Head Tide Dam will be partially breached to allow passage of migratory fish, and the dam will be stabilized. A new viewing platform will be added as well. The Service is working on this project with the same partners; the Coastal Program provided funding and staff for a detailed topographic survey of the Sheepscot River and the dam structure, providing critical data for the project, while the Service’s Fish Passage Program is providing funding and engineering support for design.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic Salmon Federation is building a fish ladder for river herring over Branch Pond Mill Dam in China, Maine, and restoring river herring passage past Clary Lake Dam in Whitefield.

“The strong coalition of partners behind this project understands that healthy rivers are lifelines for communities in the Northeast, providing recreation, water quality, strong economies and other benefits. By connecting and opening waterways like the Sheepscot River, we’re helping wildlife thrive, improving public safety and creating more resilient communities for people.” — Will Duncan, Branch Chief in Fish and Aquatic Conservation in the Service’s Northeast Region

The dam site post-removal. The new viewing platform is visible on the right side of the image. Photo by William Brooke/USFWS Volunteer

Together, we can get there from here

“We were pleased that the final plan maintained important fire hydrants for the Town, as well as the visual beauty of the dam and its historical significance.” — Tony Marple Town of Whitefield Selectman and Dam Committee Chair

Looking toward a bright future, this past winter the Maine Department of Marine Resources planted salmon eggs at the formerly impounded reach above the dam site. On May 20, a formal ceremony celebrating the dam removal will take place. Although I spend my days behind a desk in Washington, DC, nearly 600 miles from Whitefield, I still feel connected to the town I grew up in. Progress like this would not be possible without a strong foundation built on relationships that extend beyond the merely professional. Landscapes, like people, are deeply personal.

Egg planting puts fertilized salmon eggs into a natural environment for the eggs to incubate, hatch, and grow. A specialized water pump setup is used to insert funnels several inches into the river bottom, mimicking a redd, or salmon nest. Female Atlantic salmon create these nests in the fall using their tail to dig a shallow pit in gravel. After laying eggs in the pit, the female covers them with gravel, which protects them throughout the icy winter and high water flows of early spring. Photo by Maranda Nemeth/Midcoast Conservancy

The removal of the Coopers Mills dam required many partners, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Town of Whitefield, Atlantic Salmon Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Midcoast Conservancy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Coastal Program is a voluntary, partnership-based, habitat conservation program. Working on public and private land, locally-based field staff provide technical and financial assistance to willing partners to conserve fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. Learn more at Coastal Program.

By Samantha Brooke, National Team Lead for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Program

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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We’re dedicated to the conservation, protection and enhancement of fish, wildlife and plants, and their habitats.

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