Low lake level is a cause for concern

By V. Paul Reynolds

Branch Lake in Ellsworth, which is both a first class sport fishery and a water supply for Ellsworth residents, is at a record low level. As a Branch Lake resident and lake observer for more than 60 years, I have not seen anything to match it. Rocks are exposed that, in my memory, have never seen the light of day. The public boat launch ramp is almost totally exposed posing a hazard to trailers and larger boats seeking flotation.

Camp owners have insufficient water to put in their docks.

A state fisheries biologist is concerned that the precipitously low water levels could have a negative impact on lake trout and smelt spawning.

What’s going on? The earthen banks (dikes) and metal sheathing to the right of the concrete spillway dam at the outlet of the lake are leaking and in danger of breaching altogether. In order to construct a temporary fix in mid-May and to avoid a major breach, the city’s public works department has left the dam gates open to further lower the water, which only serves to compound the water level problem.

A recent state inspection of the dam reported that “the left dike is failing and has a high probability of breaching.”

The state dam inspector’s report cited four major defects: 1) Trees and brush growing on the left dike making inspection impossible. 2) Tilting, corrosion and misaligned steel sheet piling retaining the dike. 3) Eroded or settled dike indicating significant erosion. 4) Large leak at toe of dike, with estimated leakage at 1.94 million gallons a day!

The dam inspector also noted that the city has no breach plan, that a major breach of the dam, not to mention Draconian lake levels, could have a major impact on Leonard Lake in downtown Ellsworth.

City manager Glenn Moshier is emphatic that, since the lake is the town’s water supply, the issue has an urgency that far exceeds concerns of camp owners, recreational boaters and anglers. “We will do the fix by June and then close the dam gates and hope with fingers crossed for a rainy June,’’ Moshier said.

The dam problem was not a sudden fluke. Reportedly, the earthen dikes beside the concrete dam had been slowly leaking for years, which the city apparently relied upon to maintain some natural water levels on the lake. Six years ago, in May of 2017, the state found numerous and significant structural problems with both the dams and dikes.

The Branch Lake dam was built by Bangor Hydro in 1911. It would seem that over the years that the dam maintenance has not been a priority of  Ellsworth’s Public Works Department. Perhaps it has been a case of out of sight out of mind.

If the temporary mid-May fix buys time and the lake levels return to some semblance of normal, Ellsworth is still not out of the woods. A reading of the dam engineer’s report reveals a critical dam has been largely neglected for years and a major restructuring of both the dam and the adjoining earthen dikes is required. This will mean municipal outlays in excess of $100,000. 

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide and host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network. He has authored three books. Online purchase information is available at www.sportingjournal.com.

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