The Megunticook River descends from the Montgomery Dam onto exposed ledge, creating a popular waterfall. Credit: Lauren Abbate

CAMDEN, Maine — Paired with the town’s rolling mountains and historic harbor, Megunticook Lake and the Megunticook River are an integral piece of Camden’s image as a picturesque place to live and play.

But since Camden’s founding, the watershed has been heavily manipulated by the addition of dams, which alter the river’s natural state and pose flooding risks. It’s a risk that will be compounded as climate change brings rising sea levels and more severe rain events.

Camden officials are trying to get ahead of the problem by studying the watershed to see where changes can be made that would decrease the risk of flooding to protect surrounding properties and habitats.

“It’s important that we look at the [watershed] as a system and determine how we can best manage it since we’re going to be experiencing more severe rain events going into the future,” Camden Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell said. “It’s a small watershed, so it’s going to be impacted quite significantly by severe rain events.”

Their efforts have recently been helped by a $139,000 federal grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Coastal Resiliency Program, which was awarded to the town to study the six dams within the Megunticook Watershed.

In the past year, Camden officials have been taking a closer look at the town’s dams. Of the six dams, four are owned by the town and two are privately owned.

Montgomery Dam is the final dam that the Megunticook River pushes itself past before flowing into Camden Harbor. The waterfall the dam creates is a destination in downtown Camden, but it’s also the dam that officials are eyeing for full or partial removal, though no final decision has been reached.

While the Montgomery Dam doesn’t serve an official purpose anymore, the three other town-owned dams do. The East and West dams together create Megunticook Lake. The Seabright Dam formerly operated as a hydropower dam but now forms a heavily used recreation area.

Removal of these dams wouldn’t be feasible because “the whole geography of the town is formed around them,” Caler-Bell said. However, through the federal grant, options for managing these dams in a way that decreases the risk for flooding will be explored since the town currently does not know how that would look.

“These are all questions that we just don’t know the answer to, and with this study we will be able to know more about how it all works and what the best options are for both the dams and also the river more generally into the future,” Caler-Bell said.

Aside from the lake and river, the intertidal zone will also be studied through this grant. The area where the river spills into the harbor frequently overtops the town’s aging seawall and floods a waterfront park. This happens at least four to eight times each month, according to Caler-Bell.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expects a sea level rise across coastal New England of 1.7 inches in five years, 3.6 inches in 10 years and 5.6 inches in 15 years.

Standing in the Camden park in August, Camden Selectboard member Alison McKellar told the Bangor Daily News that the town needed to face the reality that infrastructure changes need to be made in order to adapt to rising sea levels and more extreme rain events.

“I think it sends a really crazy message if we’re going to be ‘Camden, the first town in Maine to sign onto the Global Covenant of Mayors [for Climate and Energy]’ and ‘Where the mountains meet the sea,’ but then we’re just going to continue to design our infrastructure as if it doesn’t matter. That’s crazy to me.”

But preparing for the future can be a difficult thing to do in a town that cherishes its history.

“This is one of those circumstances where in order to be proactive and prepared it might mean having to change something that historically has been very valued by the town,” Caler-Bell said. “That’s a very difficult thing for a lot of people to accept.”