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Historic alewife restoration initiative hits another milestone

The China Lake Alewife Restoration Initiative team, from left to right, Landis Hudson, executive director of Maine Rivers; Ray Breton, owner of the Olde Mill property; Nate Gray of Maine Department of Marine Resources; and Matt Streeter, project manager for Maine Rivers and the China Lake Alewife Restoration Initiative. (photo by Eric W. Austin)

by Eric W. Austin

Six dams in six years — that was the goal, says Matt Streeter, project manager for the China Lake Alewife Restoration Initiative, and it’s a goal they are likely to meet — and maybe even surpass.

The team invited me down to Box Mill Dam, behind the Olde Mill, in Vassalboro, to view their progress on the new fishway currently under construction. Once complete, it will be another milestone on the way to opening up migratory fish passage into China Lake for the first time in nearly two centuries.

It’s been a long haul for the project team, which is headed up by the nonprofit Maine Rivers, working in collaboration with the towns of China and Vassalboro, the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the Kennebec Water District, the Sabasticook Regional Land Trust and the China Region Lakes Alliance.

“It takes a lot of work,” says Landis Hudson, executive director for Maine Rivers. “We have created a big, solid team to work on this project, and we have been in communication for six years to get this far, but it’s taken a strong team and a clear vision of the future. We’re not done yet, but we can see the finish line.”

Originally, there were six dams along Outlet Stream blocking fish passage into China Lake. Depending on what was appropriate for the location, the group has either dismantled the dam or built a fishway to allow migratory fish a means around the obstacle. Last year, they completed a fishway at Ladd Dam, in Vassalboro. In the years prior, they dismantled Lombard and Masse da1ms. This year they are building a fishway Ôat Box Mill Dam, which leaves just Morneau Dam and the dam at the head of Outlet Stream (behind the Vassalboro Historical Society) to finish.

Although alewives have been annually stocked in China Lake for years, the team’s work will dramatically increase the lake’s migratory fish population.

“The population is going to go up significantly,” explains Nate Gray, of the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Gray has been responsible for stocking alewives in China Lake since the beginning, starting in 1997. “We stock about 25,0000 [adult alewives] a year,” he says, “[but] we know China Lake is good for about a million fish.”

Construction of a fishway continues at the Box Mill Dam, in North Vassalboro. (photo by Eric W. Austin)

Maine Rivers executive director, Landis Hudson, elaborates: “It’s great that DMR has been jump-starting the system by putting those fish in,” she says, “but the idea is to let the system do its own thing — [to] have a self-sustaining population that can make their way, essentially, from the ocean up to China Lake on their own volition.

“What we’re doing is bringing a big burst of native species back in that will – obviously – be good for the stream,” continues Hudson, “but it will also have an echo effect throughout this system and then further out into the Gulf of Maine. So, it will strengthen the food web for fish, birds, and other animals.”

Some people have questioned why these dams have not been repurposed to generate electrical power, but Hudson says that idea isn’t practical. “Sometimes people have this idea that every single dam in the state could be producing hydropower,” she says, “[but] none of the dams along Outlet Stream are particularly viable now. They were used for gristmills; they were used for saw mills — old-fashioned power. Those times are gone. So, we’ve been basically working with what’s here, trying to fix the stream and make it less ‘broken’ — bringing back the fish — but the idea of some imaginary hydropower project is not viable anymore.”

The Alewife Restoration Initiative has worked with local landowners to accomplish their goals. Ray Breton, owner of the Olde Mill property, has collaborated closely with the team to ensure the current fishway at Box Mill – and last year’s Ladd Dam fishway – were built without sacrificing the natural beauty of the environment.

“It’s been great,” says Breton. “I had some recommendations, in order to add to the park, so this all blends in and looks like Mother Nature. They were good to work with. They could have said, ‘No,’ but they didn’t. Everything I’ve asked for they put in.”

Hudson agrees. “People come here for weddings, or to have their high school pictures taken,” she says, referring to the current project at Box Mill, “so we’ve tried to make plans which integrate that into it, and [keep] the aesthetics of the waterfall. It’s not just fish passage. It’s fish passage and a park.”

Project manager Matt Streeter adds, “This is going to be the place where we are going to encourage people to come look at the fish run in the stream. There’s going to be a nice brick walkway all the way around it, and safety railings, so people will have a good view of the fishway.”

The team is aiming to complete construction at Box Mill by October. Next year, they will tackle Morneau Dam or Outlet Dam — or maybe both. It all depends on the funding.

“There is no simple way to do it, and there is no cheap way to do it,” says Hudson. “If there was a simpler or cheaper way to do it, we would have done it already.”

Contact the author at ericwaustin@gmail.com.

Volunteers sought for watershed survey

photo by Eric Austin

A watershed is the area of land that drains to a water body. The China Lake Watershed covers approximately 26 square miles of land in China, Vassalboro, and Albion. Changes to the land in a watershed can affect the water quality of the lake.

What is a Watershed Survey?

A watershed survey helps identify and prioritize current sources of soil erosion and stormwater runoff on developed land in the watershed. This includes shoreline properties, state, local and private roads, stream crossings, agriculture and forestry, and commercial properties. The last watershed survey for China Lake was conducted as part of the previous 2008 watershed-based plan. Current information is needed to develop long-term planning strategies that will improve the water quality in China Lake, which is currently listed as an “impaired lake” in Maine and has had annual algal blooms since 1983.

Watershed Survey Benefits:

• Raises public awareness about the need to protect China Lake from stormwater runoff and soil erosion.
• Documents current problems that affect water quality.
• Provides landowners with information about how to reduce or eliminate soil erosion and polluted runoff from their property.
• Provides the means by which to acquire state and federal grants to fund future projects that will improve water quality. Volunteers are needed for this monumental event!

For more information or to register:

Call the China Lake Association at (207) 968-1037, or call Dale at Kennebec County SWCD at 621-9000. For more information: www.ChinaLakeAssociation.org

A watershed survey for China Lake will take place on Saturday, October 3, 2020.

Become a Survey Volunteer!

Attend a free two-hour training presentation to learn about watersheds, how to identify erosion and other sources of polluted runoff, and ways to help improve the water quality in China Lake. Then, join us on Saturday October 3rd to walk the watershed and document erosion.

The China Lake Watershed Survey is a community effort to improve the water quality in China Lake now and for future generations.

Project partners include: China Lake Association, China Region Lakes Alliance, Kennebec SWCD, Maine DEP & Ecological Instincts. This project is funded in part by the United States Environmental Protection Agency under Section 604(b) of the Clean Water Act.

Fish die-off reported on China Lake

This photo was taken of a fish die-off occurred on Webber Pond in June 2016. (The Town Line file photo by Roland D. Hallee)

There has been a fish die-off reported on China Lake. An inquiry at the China Town Office prompted this response from Scott Pierz, president of the China Lake Association.

“In the past there was a fish die off that was recognized by Nate Gray of the Maine Department of Marine Resources and others (more knowledgeable than I) said that a temperature shift in the lake water’s thermocline stressed the fish and caused their mortality. This was reported by Shannon Power down in the area of the lower portion of the east basin watershed of China Lake a couple of years ago. I had sent an email to Nate along with some photos (from Shannon) and that’s the response I received.”

China/Vassalboro fifth graders help with revegetation program

Students at VCS helping with the revegetation project at the Masse Dam Site.

Fifth grade students from China Middle School and Vassalboro Community School are continuing the work started two years ago by fellow students helping with the revegetation project at the Masse Dam site, in Vassalboro. They are learning the connections between alewives, native plants and the restoration of Maine waterways back to their original state. The restoration of Maine waterways, also known as the Alewife Restoration Initiative, will allow river herring, an anadromous fish, to return to freshwater to spawn.

The site of Masse Dam, which was removed in 2018. (photo by Eric Austin)

Matt Streeter, from Maine Rivers, shared what has happened and is happening as dams are being removed allowing alewives and blueback herring to return to China Lake and Outlet Stream. Nate Gray from the Maine Department of Marine Resources provided information on alewives as a keystone species and what that means to our local environment. Anita Smith, a Maine Master naturalist, clarified the difference between native and invasive plants and why we need to focus our restoration efforts with native species.

This year’s seed collection were ones that would do well in wet to medium wet soils. Some of the seeds planted were Swamp Milkweed, Swamp Smart Weed, New England Asters, Wild Bergamot, Black-eyed Susan and Golden Alexander. Next fall students will go to the Masse Dam site to plant their young plants along the outlet stream. There is also a plan for the fifth graders to visit the site this spring. In the spring they will learn more about the history of the site, identify critters from the stream to determine if the stream is healthy or not, as well as plant shrubs along the stream’s edge.

Seeds for this project were provided by the China Lake Association.

Article and photos submitted by Elaine Philbrook of the China Lake association.

Students at CMS helping with the revegetation project at the Masse Dam Site.

Invasive Plants 101 workshop, held in China, well attended

Some of the attendees at the Invasive Plant 101 workshop, held in China on August 24, were, from left to right, Sonny Pierce, of Rangeley Lake Heritage Trust, Peter Caldwell and Marie Michaud, China Lake Association, and Spencer Harriman, of Lake Stewards of Maine. (contributed photo)

by Elaine Philbrook

Friend or Foe?

That was the question on participants’ minds who attended the Invasive Plant 101 Workshop, at China Town Office, on August 20.  The workshop was hosted by the China Lake Association and the Kennebec Water Districts. Participants included members of the China Lake Association, the Kennebec Water District, Echo Lake Association, Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust, the Boothbay Region Water District, folks from the town of Palermo, and year-round and summer residents of China Lake.

The six-hour workshop was presented in four parts:

  • Overview of invasive species issues in Maine and the Nation;
  • Plant identification fundamentals;
  • Plant identification hands-on exercise with live aquatic plants;
  • Conducting a screening survey, employing tools and techniques.

Illustrations for 11 of Maine’s most unwanted invasive aquatic plants.

The overview included information on the negative impact invasive aquatic plants can have, and have had, on ecosystems, economics, recreation, property values, and human health in and around lake communities.  A few facts shared about Maine lakes and their economic development are as follows: 640,000 residents recreate on Maine lakes, visitors spend $2.3 billion annually, generating and sustaining $3.5 billion in economic activities, $1.8 billion in annual income from Maine residents and over 50,000 jobs.  These figures are from a 2005 study by T. Allen, Center for Tourism Research and Analysis, Maine Congress of Lakes Association.

The town of China benefits through the taxes generated from lake property owners, both year-round and seasonal.  China residents and others enjoy the natural beauty and recreational activities the lake provides. These same activities and pleasures are shared by people visiting for a day or vacationing for a longer period of time.  If China Lake or Three Mile Pond where to become infested by an invasive plant these recreational activities would be jeopardized.  The cost on the community can be phenomenal, from the loss of tax revenue to the expense of plant removal.  Early detection of an invasive aquatic plant will insure that the activities and financial benefits that we all enjoy from experiencing our lakes will continue uninterrupted.

One of the working groups at the Invasive Plants Workshop 101.

The second and third parts of the workshop were about the 11 aquatic invasive plants, their native look-a-likes, and what to do if you find a suspicious plant.  If you think you have found an invasive plant you should mark the sport where you found it, take a photo or obtain a sample of the plant, and contact your local identification representative on invasive plants (Elaine Philbrook) to help with identification (or follow the directions on the Lake Stewards of Maine web site: https://www.lakestewardsofmaine.org/reporting-aquatic-species-6/). A word of caution, when gathering a sample of a suspicious plant, be careful to gather all the fragments of the plant.  Invasive plants are able to propagate from very small plant fragments.

The final part of the workshop covered how to conduct a lake screening survey and use helpful tools. A screening survey consists of people who have had training to identify invasive aquatic plants.  Participants choose or are assigned an area on the lake to watch for suspicious plants.  Once a year they report their findings to the lead supervisor.  A survey can take place anytime during the year you can get out on the water. The best time to do a survey is between mid-July to early fall because plants are in bloom.

To become a “screener” you need to be trained.  Trainings can be a six-hour Invasive Plant 101 workshop, or three-hour Invasive Plant Paddle; both are offered by the Lake Stewards of Maine. A third option is an Invasive Plant Paddle offered by a trained local resident.

If you are interested in becoming part of the screening survey team contact Elaine Philbrook at esphilbrook@gmail.com.   The goal of the China Lake Association is to have enough trained people available to develop a screening survey team that will continuously monitor the China Lake.

Winners of 2019 China Lake Association post contest

The winners of the China Lake Association poster contest were, from left to right, Elaine Philbrook, contest coordinator, April Dutilly (fifth grade, fourth place), Madeline Clement (fifth grade, fourth place), Elijah Pelkey (fifth grade, third place), Elliotte Podey (fifth grade, first place), and Kayleigh Morin (sixth grade, first place). Back is China Lake Association President Scott Pierz. Not present, fifth grade winners, Ruby Pearson (second place), Bayley Nickles (fourth place), and Octavia Berto (sixth grade, second place), and Jayda Bickford (sixth grade, third place). (photo courtesy of Elaine Philbrook)

CHINA: KWD trustees hear China Lake report

Image Credit: chinalakeassociation.org

by Roland D. Hallee

At their March 15 meeting, the Kennebec Water District board of trustees heard a report, on the request of trustee Allan Fuller, regarding the China Lake water level and maintaining this level within the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) lake level guidance order.

Kennebec Water District Engineer Matt Zetterman informed the trustees that in order to meet the winter target level of one to two feet below the spillway, KWD has recently made an adjustment to increase the flow to the Outlet Stream, from 115 cubic feet per second (cfs) to between 150 and 160 cfs. Zetterman explained that although the DEP allows a maximum water release of 200 cfs, in consideration of the stream volume capacity, property owners, and shoreland, KWD attempts to maintain a flow below this level. In addition, as the lake level decreases, it becomes more difficult to sustain the higher flow. He further explained that the month of April is when the flow is adjusted with the intention of replenishing the lake with water. With the amount of eventual snow melt, raising the level should not be too difficult, but adjustments will continue depending upon weather variables such as the amount of precipitation, or the lack thereof.

Zetterman assured the trustees that KWD has good and constant communications with the DEP, and the DEP is aware of the effort by the Kennebec Water District to maintain the lake level within the state guidelines.