The Belfast Climate Crisis Committee held a forum Jan. 25 to gauge public interest in restoring the Little River, which included discussion about the dams.

Led by Committee Chairman Jon Beal, discussion contemplated the best way to restore the river. Conversation centered on the upper and lower dams at the beginning of the river, which have been neglected and are now thought to be in danger of failure. The options discussed included removing or rebuilding the dams.

Until the city decides what action it wants to take to restore the river, it cannot undertake a feasibility study.

The dams were built when Belfast used the river for its city water supply. But in the 1980s, the city stopped drawing water from the river and now uses the Goose River aquifer in East Belfast as its main water supply.

The top of the upper dam failed in 1943 and flooded Route 1, but was rebuilt that same year, Beal said. Since then, residents have been concerned about the structures, especially in the face of a changing climate, which could bring higher winds and larger coastal storm surges caused by rising ocean water.

An engineering study in 2018 indicated the upper dam had structural issues and found that it was near the end of its life, Beal said. It suggested that the dams either be removed completely or rebuilt.

Jack Shaida of Coastal Mountains Land Trust said the closest dam removal project similar to the Little River dams was on the Sheepscot River. That project cost approximately $500,000. He said a lot of state and federal grants are available for projects like this. “I don’t think municipalities contributed much to the project,” he said.

A resident said Maine is the last stronghold for brook trout, adding that that the fish will return if the dams are removed, but “it won’t happen overnight.”

The species has become endangered in all of its ranges outside the state because of warming waters and human development, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Biologist Nate Gray said dam removal will restore the river better than fish passages if the city were to rebuild the dams. The passages are expensive and must be maintained. “It would sequester a lot more carbon as a stream,” he said.

Upstream Watch President Amy Grant offered the group’s services to the city. But Beal said the meeting was just about gauging public opinion. “We’re not in the business of suggesting anything, just collecting information,” Beal said.

The Belfast Water District has expressed no interest in owning or maintaining the dams, Beal said. Nordic Aquafarms, which is proposing a land-based fish farm next to the stream, has a contract with the Water District that grants it a six-month period in which it has the sole option to buy the dams.

Nordic intends to use the river as a backup water source for its operations, for which it would need the lower dam to stay in place, Beal said. But at a recent Planning Board meeting the company stated it could capture free-flowing water, making it feasible to continue its operations without the dams.

Nordic has received all of its permits from the city and state, but is still waiting for approval of its U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to place its intake and outfall pipes in an intertidal area.

It is unclear at this time if Nordic will purchase the dams, or when the company will start construction on the development.

Residents were mixed on their opinions regarding the dams and it is unknown whether there will be another meeting around the discussion.