State transportation officials are planning to replace a decades-old dike where Route 1 crosses the mouth of Middle River in Machias with a bridge, which will restore the natural tidal flow into Middle River from the adjacent Machias River. But for nearby landowners, it’s an update that comes with unwanted change.
The bridge would be roughly 1,000 feet long with a wide span in the middle to allow the tide to flow underneath. That would allow fish passage currently blocked by the dike — something that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration flagged as a concern.
Federal officials told the Maine Department of Transportation that any significant work on the structure, where both Route 1 and the Down East Sunrise Trail cross the river, must include improved fish passage into Middle River.
Middle River winds roughly two miles northwest, under Route 192 in Marshfield, from where it feeds into the Machias River at the existing dike.
That’s not welcome news for waterfront property owners on the Middle River. Some say the removal of the dike will expose their properties to larger fluctuations in the tide, allowing the flow of water upriver and onto abutting properties.
“We have people who will be significantly and materially affected,” Bill Kitchen, the town manager of Machias, said about the removal of tide-control gates under Route 1. “There is some land that would be flooded.”
At least one landowner uses his riverside property as cow pasture and would lose that use to the tide, Kitchen said. The state has said it would compensate landowners for such impacts, but how much will be paid to them has not been decided, he said.
MDOT plans to hold a public meeting at 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 28, Machias Memorial High School to solicit feedback from local residents, officials and others about the bridge proposal.
Ignoring the NOAA concerns could jeopardize federal funding for the project, costing state taxpayers significantly more to rebuild the dike than it would with federal help, state officials said.
“Based on information collected to date, a bridge will best meet the project’s purpose and need to improve the structure’s condition, maintain the Sunrise Trail, and provide for future rail use,” MDOT officials said. “A bridge will return tidal exchange upstream of the causeway, improving fish passage, and account for anticipated sea level rise.”
Jacob van de Sande, a project manager with Maine Coast Heritage Trust who has worked with the town on habitat conservation projects, said restoring the natural tidal flow up Middle River would have significant benefits.
From an environmental point of view, it would allow several fish species, including protected Atlantic salmon, to swim up Middle River. By drawing more alewives, baby eels, brook trout and striped bass upstream, there also would be more fishing opportunities. It would also help revert the lower part of Middle River to being salt marsh, which would attract ducks, he said. Surrounding wetlands could also absorb more flood water instead of funneling the water further up the Machias River, where it frequently floods the low section of Route 1 between downtown Machias and the dike, he said.
Van de Sande said the agricultural importance of land fronting on the Middle River has declined over the decades, at the same time that the importance of preserving fish habitat and salt marshes has become more apparent.
“I believe that the perceived negative impacts to some individual land owners are far outweighed by the ecological, recreational and economic benefits of this project to the region and the state,” van de Sande said. “The bridge will have significant benefits for public resources such as fish, wildlife and water quality.”
Aside from the debate about whether the flow of the tide under Route 1 should remain restricted, Kitchen said the town is “ecstatic” about the planned design of the road where it will cross the river.
The state intends to keep the row of parking spots along the north side of the causeway, where people park to enjoy the view and where vendors often sell produce and other local products from their vehicles. The Down East Sunrise Trail still will run along the north side of the causeway parallel to Route 1. Trees will be planted as a buffer between the trail and the parking area, and a new sidewalk will be built along the southern side of the causeway next to the Machias River, where no such sidewalk currently exists.
“We’re thrilled with the Route 1 design,” Kitchen said. “The causeway will be amazing.”