HARTFORD – On any hot summer day in years gone by, Paula Marsters could dive from the end of her private dock into the cool waters of Lake Anasagunticook. This year, a dive from the dock would land Marsters in a muddy bog full of frogs.
“I used to have a waterfront property,” said Marsters, who has owned her cottage on the lake 16 years. “It’s becoming frog habitat at this point.”
Frog habitat in the municipal drinking water supply.
At the other end of the lake in Canton, where it drains into Whitney Brook, water levels are also low – about five feet below normal for this time of the year, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
Dian Mooar, who owns a two-acre property with about 1,200 feet of frontage on the brook, is equally disappointed with the water levels this summer as she attempts to sell her two-bedroom home.
“There’s barely any water in the river and you can’t advertise a home where you can boat into the lake when you can’t,” she said.
“It’s really destroyed the property value for people on the river and the upper part of the lake. Some people now have no water in front of their homes.”
The reason? The gates on the dam, which was built in 1814 at the Canton end of the 590-acre lake, are wide open and have been for several months under a May 8 order from Gen. John W. Libby, commissioner of the state Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management.
Libby – to ensure public safety and avoid a possible breach of the dam – ordered the dam’s owner, Ray Fortier, to open the overflow sluice gates and leave them that way. The order overrides a Maine Department of Environmental Protection standing order that they be closed May 15 to raise the water level in the lake.
Libby made his order after state inspectors determined last year that fixes to the dam’s dikes made by Fortier without a DEP permit may have damaged the structural integrity, stability, function and operation of the dam to the point it constituted a threat to public safety, explained Dana Murch, DEP’s dams and hydropower manager.
“The dike could give way and cause flooding,” Murch said. “Under his emergency powers (Libby) superseded the water level order.”
Fortier had previously been ordered by Libby to produce an engineering report on what impact the non-permitted work to the dam had on the dike system. The report was due on March 31 and, as of Friday, was still about 30 days from being complete, Murch said.
“We were told we would have it six weeks from June 1,” Murch said.
Fortier said he has hired a Brunswick-based engineering firm to work on the report and to determine how much it would cost to restore the dam to full function. He reports paying $16,000 for the assessment.
Fortier has owned the dam for more than 20 years, and both he and town officials admit that relations between them have been frosty.
In 1998, the town took Fortier to court for alleged shoreland zoning violations. Fortier entered into a consent agreement with the town that he would get a permit from the DEP before doing any construction work on the dam, and that he would abide by the water management plan, which has been in place since 1978. Still, water depths and quality, as well as the operation and condition of the dam, are regular issues of contention for Hartford and Canton, according to town officials and members of the Lake Anasagunticook Association.
A permanent fix
There have always been times when the water levels on the lake are a concern, said association member Judy Hamilton.
“But this is the lowest we’ve ever seen it,” she said. She understands why residents – especially those with disappearing waterfront – are upset, but also warns people to temper their outrage.
Hamilton, now retired and a lake resident for most of her life, said that a fix for water levels needs to be done right and be a fix for the long-term, so the struggle over water levels is not perennial.
“There have already been at least a couple temporary solutions to stabilize the water for the summer that have fallen through for one reason or another,” she said. “So anytime you have something changing what you are used to and have been used to for so many years, it’s natural to be upset and to be looking for an instant fix or someone to blame or whatever. But that doesn’t usually get you anywhere. Being a resident and being here for as many years as I have and expecting to be here that many more years, I expect it to be done and done right.”
An effort this year at the Legislature to secure $100,000 from the state to repair the dam or create a temporary dam near the existing dam fell short, Hamilton said. Part of the problem was the association was trying to get grant funds from a loan program, a program also meant to provide funding for permanent fixes for dams.
Dam owner’s view
Fortier, too, believes Canton could apply for grants from a local soil and water conservation district, which would then be “floated” to him so he could improve the dam.
“If the town wanted to speed things up and participate in the repair of the dam we could speed things up,” Fortier said. “It’s not just a team effort on my part. I’m the middle guy.”
He also said he has offered to sell the town his property for $360,000, a figure he said is based on the value of his water rights for the dam. Fortier has insisted he wants to refurbish the dam so it could generate electricity, and has collected a pile of parts from this dam and others on his Canton property.
On Thursday, an engineer from Wright-Pierce in Brunswick was inspecting the dam for the first time but declined comment for this report.
“We are trying to get it all straightened out so we can make it safe for everybody and people can still enjoy the water level,” Fortier said. Once the engineers produce a cost estimate, Fortier said, he will go from there.
Murch, the DEP official, said he’s worked in the field for 25 years and is doubtful the existing dam in Canton could be easily or cost-effectively converted to a money-making hydro project.
He also said determining a dam’s value or potential value is more art-form than science, but the long-neglected dam certainly needs major work. “By one argument the dam is worth nothing,” Murch said. “It’s a liability.”
Some in the towns, including both Mooar and Marsters, have suggested Canton take the dam from Fortier using the power of eminent domain. Murch said that may be a possibility, especially for the Canton Water District, which draws the town’s drinking water supply from the lake.
New versus old
Others have suggested and worked toward installing another temporary dam on the brook but that’s proving problematic, too. Mooar has been hesitant to agree to install the dam on her property as it would close off the water for neighbors downstream, she said. “Some people are saying my neighbors are threatening me, but that’s not the case,” Mooar said. “I just don’t feel it’s the right thing to do to my neighbors.”
Murch said a new dam is an obvious solution. It would need proper permitting from the state, but it’s more complicated than that.
“You can’t just go and plunk a dam down on someone else’s property. You need landowner permission,” Murch said.
So far the state has held off fining Fortier for violating both state permitting laws and the MEMA order to produce an engineering report.
“One of the reasons the state has not gone to court to levy fines against Mr. Fortier is we would much rather have him spend his money fixing the dam,” Murch said.
But if Fortier doesn’t fix the dam or cannot afford to, another option for him would be to abandon the dam and allow either the town or the Canton Water District to take it over, Murch said.
Fortier said that wasn’t an option he is considering.
Beyond the obvious problems for shorefront property owners, the towns are also seeing other repercussions from the lower water level this year, said Ron Hutchins, a former Canton selectman. Hutchins said he blames state government for not previously enforcing the water management order of the DEP, and said Fortier is not solely to blame for the problems surrounding the dam.
“We’ve been waiting 20 years for the state to enforce an order that they did not enforce,” Hutchins said.
Hutchins also said that Libby really had no choice but to order the gates opened as the potential for the dam being breached and flooding areas downstream is a serious concern.
“But the impact of that order has been very heavy,” Hutchins said. “As a taxpayer in Canton, I’m very, very worried about the quality of the wildlife on the lake, the wildlife habitat and the overall loss to the local economy that comes from this.”
Hutchins, who is also the superintendent of the Canton Water District, said that the cost to treat and process the town’s drinking water may go up as the lake level goes down. As water drains and levels get lower, the water warms faster, which means more bacteria can grow in the water and more chemicals, especially chlorine, are used to get it to a drinkable quality. There is also increased turbidity or microscopic particles that cost more to filter.
“There is no danger to the drinking water quality at this time,” Hutchins said.
Unfounded rumors that the drinking water quality is at stake are also having an impact on citizens’ feelings about the situation, according to some officials.
John Cronin, chairman of the water district’s board of trustees, said it was too early to know for sure if it would cost more to treat and supply the town’s 120 water customers. But by the end of the summer the district will have a better understanding of the impact of the low water levels. “But to date we haven’t seen any decrease in the water quality,” Cronin said.
Canton and Hartford may also be facing petitions for tax abatement from waterfront property owners who believe their homes are overvalued as they lose lake frontage, Mooar said.
They may live at different ends of the lake, but Mooar and Marsters agree that a solution will only come if residents pressure officials.
“We need to let them know that the bickering needs to stop and we need to work together to solve this problem,” Mooar said.
“There are so many things that enter into this,” Marsters said. “It’s just not for recreational purposes. But do we have to let it get to this point? You battle to keep your property and the ending result is this kind of thing?”