BETHEL – State officials this week rejected allegations that logging and development by Sunday River Ski Resort on Barker Mountain precipitated the violent rainstorm that wiped out Bethel’s municipal water supply.
Instead, blame for the disaster lies with Mother Nature and the area’s steep, glacially created geology, they say.
“I don’t think logging or the ski trails had anything to do with it,” said Dawn Hallowell, a project manager with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Land and Water Quality.
Persistent rumors over the past few days in Bethel and elsewhere have placed blame for the calamity on development along Barker Mountain and unsound logging practices in past years.
Hallowell, the DEP project manager for the Newry ski resort, visited the area Tuesday. She said the destruction exposed clay beds and ripped chunks of it apart, causing water in the brook to continuously run cloudy from suspended clay particles.
“This was a combination of specific site conditions, the geology and the rainstorm. Development didn’t play any role in the catastrophe,” she added.
According to Gov. John Baldacci’s July 17 letter seeking federal aid, the severe summer storm that struck Bethel, Gilead and Newry on July 11, dumped six to eight inches of rain in approximately 45 minutes.
“Locals said it was like standing under a waterfall,” Don Hutchins, a former Canton selectman, said last week while surveying the damage on Route 113 for the Maine Department of Transportation.
Linda Kokemuller, another DEP project manager assigned to the ski resort, also toured the damage Tuesday. She said there hasn’t been any development for 100 years within the Bethel Water District’s 2,300 acres of watershed.
Donald J. Mansius, director of forest policy and management for the Maine Forest Service, said Wednesday in an e-mail that that the district’s total reported timber harvesting was less than a few hundred acres over the past five years. Filing an intent to harvest, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that harvesting was done.
“In any case, it does not seem like there has been much harvest activity in the watershed,” he added.
“I don’t think they ever do anything huge. They just do small cuttings,” Dick Morse, a Maine Forest Service supervisor of foresters, said Tuesday.
“Cutting itself doesn’t lend itself to huge runoff, unless there’s a huge clearcut. But it’s only temporary until regeneration takes over by the next year. We’ve never had any issues with the Bethel Water District over-cutting or doing illegal cutting within the watershed,” Morse said.
The area’s glacial terrain played the more predominant role.
State geologist Woodrow B. Thompson said Friday that, “Some till deposits are sandier and drain better and some deposits have clay mixed in. When deposits have a high clay content, they’re more prone to failure in landslide situations.”
Comparing the destruction he saw Tuesday along Route 113 and Wild River in the Evans Notch area, Thompson said the heavily vegetated Chapman Brook Watershed sustained “some kind of massive debris flow or avalanche down the brook. It was probably similar to what I saw along the Wild River.”
Morse said Maine is supposed to get 40 inches of rain annually.
“But when an area gets about one-fourth of that in 45 minutes, you can’t prepare for that. That would take out anything that man could build. There’s no way you could prepare for anything like that. That’s pretty steep country, and these weather events, they happen and there’s not much you can do about them despite best management practices,” Morse said.