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FORT FAIRFIELD – You can’t see the Aroostook River anymore as you drive along Main Street in Fort Fairfield.
But that minor aesthetic detail doesn’t bother Town Manager Dan Foster, whose main effort over the past two years has been to see to the construction of a dike to protect the town’s business district from the annual threat of spring flooding.
“I personally like the looks of it,” Foster said Friday about the snow-covered mound that now separates Main Street from the Aroostook River.
The change in view appears to be more of a minor issue, especially when one considers what the building of the 2,800-foot earthen structure will mean to downtown property owners and residents when the annual spring thaw occurs in late March and early April.
For decades, the town has held its breath each year as the snow melts and the ice breaks up on the river.
As the river flows from Fort Fairfield and into the neighboring Canadian province of New Brunswick, it rounds a bend that at times causes the ice to pile up and the water to back up.
In 1994, so much water flooded onto the town’s Main Street that an estimated $6 million to $10 million in damages was caused. The area was declared a federal disaster area.
Two years later, town officials began in earnest to seek federal and state funds to build the earthen levee.
In 1999, a contract was awarded to Ed Pelletier and Sons Construction Co. of Madawaska and work began.
Currently, the dike is mostly complete at a final cost of $6.9 million, with 65 percent paid by the federal government.
Responsible for the remaining 35 percent, the town was able obtain funding from the state of Maine for a majority of the local share, according to Foster.
The actual cost to the town was between $700,000 and $800,000, which came from a federal loan program account, according to the town manager. None of the funds to meet the local commitment came from revenues generated by local property tax dollars, Foster pointed out.
From the standpoint of protecting Main Street, things should be a little less hectic come springtime, Foster said. The town manager, who started his job two years ago, described the routine that town officials followed as temperatures warmed and the ice started to move during previous thaws.
“I just watched the whole thing and was amazed,” Foster said, regarding the work that other town officials conducted to warn residents, coordinate with emergency management officials and keep an eye on the weather.
“These guys were good,” the town manager said.
There are no plans as yet to contract for the services of a huge ice-breaking machine that has come in previous years to break up the ice on the river, Foster said. The machine, which comes from Quebec, resembled a large spider as it crawled along the frozen water breaking the ice.
As a result, the ice flowed more smoothly downriver.
Within the next month, the Army Corps of Engineers, which supervised the construction, is scheduled to sign the dike over to the town, Foster said. After that, the town will be responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the dike and the associated pumping station.
Foster said that he plans to propose an annual appropriation of $15,000 for the facility’s support.
Although the earthen portion of the dike is complete, pumps have yet to be installed that would take care of any overflow from a brook that feeds into the river. Foster said those pumps, currently being tested in California, are scheduled to installed and tested in January.
During a spring thaw, the river water can back up into the brook and cause flooding. To avoid that, a gate will be used to block that backflow, Foster explained. However, the water from the brook, which handles storm drainage, will be pumped over the dike into the river to relieve any pressure, according to the town manager.
The pumps are electrically powered, but also have a diesel-run generator for backup power.
Other issues that need attention include how to handle snowmobiles traveling on the top of the dike, where there is a walkway, and the installation of gates on the ends of the walkway.