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Lakeside residents concerned about creeping water levels

June 17, 2009
CENTER HARBOR — Worried that their lakeside property is slowly sinking, a group of residents came before the Center Harbor Board of Selectmen to enlist their support in working to lower the level of Lake Waukewan.

The level of Lake Waukewan hinges greatly on the amount of water released from the Waukewan Dam in Meredith, according to Dave Riley of Center Harbor. The level of Lake Winona, Snake River, and the northern marshes are therefore determined by the level of Lake Waukewan. It's this relationship that has the Lake Winona Improvement Association concerned and working to find a way to have it lowered.

"We don't want this to be a battle between those who want the lake level high and those who want it low," said Janan Hays, a New Hampton resident with Center Harbor land on Lake Winona. "I don't think there's any malicious intent (in the water level), I think it's just a mistake."

A group of about seven residents came to the Center Harbor Board of Selectmen, asking for their help and support in facilitating a meeting to address their concerns about the lake levels.

Currently, the water level in Lake Waukewan is 540.5 feet, according to Center Harbor resident Dave Riley. Back when the Waukewan Dam was used for industrial work in Meredith, however, the level was lower, Riley said, since it was being actively used in the mills. In 1936, Riley said, Lake Waukewan was considered "full" at 539 feet. As a feeder lake into Waukewan, Lake Winona was measured back then at 540 feet. Ever since the dam was brought out of industrial use, he said, the elevation of the lake has risen.

"Any time it rains, there's no storage capacity left," said Riley. "The historic level was 539, and it's a long way from 539 to 540.5 feet. The impact is in environmental and property damage."

As the water crept up along Lake Winona, residents detailed the damage they said the lake and property owners have endured. Hays said that Winona's sandy beaches have mostly disappeared. Center Harbor resident Donald Thibeault said that after last August's intense rainstorm, his entire backyard sank under three feet of water for two weeks and never dried out. Prior to that, his beach disappeared, and he can no longer mow his backyard for fear of getting stuck in the mud.

Dean Sena of Center Harbor said that all his efforts "had gone down the drain" in trying to keep his house dry as the water level rose. Sena said that he had replaced his insulation twice in the last four years because of flooding.

Riley said that he had lost several trees to root erosion, including a weeping willow, and that he could no longer launch his 12-foot boat from his dock, since he "couldn't keep the dock in the lake" due to the elevation of water.

Other aspects of lake life are affected by the level of water, said Hays. She said that loons were having a harder time nesting on the shore because of the rising water, and that because of the erosion, the lake was filled with more silt. She also worried about whether the closer proximity to some septic systems and the increased flow of nutrients would spur cyanobacteria blooms on the lake.

The selectmen asked the residents whether they had asked for the dam to be opened to allow more water out. The residents said that there was some confusion as to who actually controlled the dam. Hays said that she had appealed to the Department of Environmental Services. Thibeault said that he would contact the Meredith Water Department to ask about lowering the dam's level. It would be lowered, he said, but only until someone else asked for the level to be raised. He noted that Lake Waukewan could be rocky for some boaters.

Water Department Superintendent Brian Carroll said that Lake Waukewan is currently at normal levels, which he said was 540 feet. As to who controls Waukewan Dam, he said that the Inns at Mill Falls operated and controlled it, with suggestions and input from the Water Department. He also noted that the department had instituted daily checks of the lake level.

"We can only control so much of it," said Carroll. "It's just about at the full level."

Rusty McLear of New Hampshire Hospitality Holdings said that his company owned the dam and the flowage rights to the lakes. He cited a 1904 agreement to maintain the level of the lake between the high and low level.

"We have the legal right, but in practice, the town of Meredith calls us and tells us when to raise and lower the level, and we do as they say," said McLear. "They also have a gage to keep it at a certain level. One person's too high is another person's too low. I have had calls in the same day one person will call me and tell me the lake is too high, and 20 minutes later, someone else will call me and tell me the lake is too low."

Selectmen Chair Charley Hanson said that they could try and meet with Meredith and New Hampton selectmen, along with members of the DES to discuss the matter.

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