State Will Drop Water Level to 406′ Starting September 15

Freedom—August 28, 2019—Marinas on Ossipee Lake have been advised that the lake water level will be lowered by approximately 15 inches, to 406′, starting September 15. 

Typically, the lake is held at the summer level, 407.25′, through Columbus Day before being drawn down to the winter level, which is approximately 404′.

The reason for the early drawdown is that the state is scrambling to complete this year’s work on the new dam. Construction of the much-needed structure was expected to start in the spring, but was delayed until August 5 because of funding delays. 

Construction at the Ossipee River dam.
Photo: Al Butchie Pretti

The state’s immediate concern is the concrete work for the new structure, which it wants to finish before the water flow increases during the full post-Columbus Day drawdown, according to Dam Bureau Chief Engineer Jim Gallagher. 

“We can only pass about 1,000 cubic feet per second of water through the gate house,” he told Ossipee Lake Alliance. “In October and November, the flows at the dam will begin to exceed that amount, which would flood the construction site.”

Installation of the dam gate will begin next May, and the work to be completed this fall must be able to withstand the high flows and weather conditions during winter and spring ice-out without damage.

Gallagher said John Picard, who heads the Ossipee Lake Dam Authority, notified the lake’s marinas and Ossipee and Freedom officials about the state’s plan this week. 

Word of the drawdown spread on social media and was greeted with frustration by boaters and marina owners.

Lakefront Landing Marina is on the channel between Broad Bay and the big lake, and owner Mark Galloway said the phone calls to his business have been steady. 

“Boaters are concerned,” he told Ossipee Lake Alliance. “People understand why this needs to be done, but they’re frustrated about the short notice,” noting that the drawdown will begin in little more than two weeks.       

Asked at what water level he would have difficulty getting his customers’ boats out of the lake, Galloway said he wasn’t sure, but thought a 15-inch drop might be “pretty close.”  

“The boats berthed here will be fine,” he said, “but boats from elsewhere may have clearance issues in the area of the No Wake sign at the entrance to the big lake, where the water is shallow even in the summer.” 

His thoughts about navigation were echoed by Bob Smart, who writes the popular “Smart Report” about the lake. Smart said the sand bar at the entrance to Ossipee Lake Marina and the river from Danforth Pond to Broad Bay are areas that could present a challenge at the 406′ level. 

“I think a lot of people will decide to pull their boat out sooner rather than wait until later and take a chance,” he said. “That’s going to put a strain on the marinas to meet the extra demand in a short period of time.”

Smart also wondered how non-resident property owners will get the word if they’re not planning to be back on the lake until Columbus Day. His own boat, he said, is coming out at the end of next week. 

Dam Bureau Chief Gallagher said he understands the frustration, but something had to be done to protect the financial investment made on the long-awaited project, first proposed in 2009 and repeatedly delayed from lack of funds. 

The Bureau solicited construction bids in April before the funding was formally approved in order to hit the ground running the day it was released. But that rapid start only went so far. 

“We’re behind schedule,” he said, “but we can’t slow down and lose more time, and we have to protect what’s been done so far so it doesn’t wash down the river from damage by faster water flows after the Columbus Day drawdown. If we lose that work, we will have to start over again next year.”  

Gallagher said a complete drawdown right after Labor Day would have been ideal from a construction perspective, and it was on the table. But he decided a gradual reduction to 406 after September 15 was a reasonable compromise in order to give people another two weeks on the lake after Labor Day. 

“We know this is not what people want or were expecting, but given how long it’s taken us to get to this point, we hope people will understand why we need to do this.”  

Early drawdowns on the lake are uncommon but not unprecedented. The most recent was in 2005, when boaters and local officials alike were caught by surprise after the state posted signs that a full drawdown would begin the day after Labor Day to accommodate shoreline repairs.

Ossipee Selectmen reported “widespread panic” by boaters worried their boats would be trapped by low water, and marinas had to scramble their schedules. State Representative David Babson fumed that the early drawdown would scare away post-season fishermen, whose spending was important to local businesses. Babson said a better planning and communication process was needed between state and local officials. 

While the early drawdown in 2005 may have been unpopular, it proved to be a godsend. After the lake level reached a winter-like low of 403.84′ on October 8, more than 11 inches of rain fell and took the level to 411.3′, flooding low-lying properties across the lake system. Had it not been for the early drawdown, the water level could have reached an unimaginable 414.75’—more than seven feet higher than normal, and exceeding the level of the disastrous Flood of 1998. 

State Will Drop Water Level to 406′ Starting September 15
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