Removal of Highland Lake dam grates alarms mother

HERE’S THE GRATES — The area of darker green to the left of the Highland Lake Dam controls marks the presence of the two iron grates, overgrown by grass. It’s unclear how long ago the grates had  been removed, but as of Labor Day Weekend, the town had reinstalled them in place.  (Geraghty Photo)

HERE’S THE GRATES — The area of darker green to the left of the Highland Lake Dam controls marks the presence of the two iron grates, overgrown by grass. It’s unclear how long ago the grates had been removed, but as of Labor Day Weekend, the town had reinstalled them in place. (Geraghty Photo)

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

They don’t often take their kids swimming at Highland Lake Beach in Bridgton. But when Cindy Fontana and her sister Debbie Martin stopped with children in tow for a swim recently, they were in for a surprise. For as long as either could remember, two heavy iron grates covered both sides of the entrance to the spillway at the Highland Lake Dam. The grates, or trash rakes, were designed to keep debris from accumulating and pressing up against the gate, and, they presumed, to keep any curious young children from exploring too close to the gate. But when they looked, the grates were not in the water. They lay instead in overgrown grass beside the dam. The trash rakes had obviously been removed for months or longer, judging by how much grass was growing up around them.

What’s up with that, they thought.To both mothers, this situation raised a huge red flag. They realized that swim lines were being used to keep children or anyone else from swimming at the dam — but they also realized that kids will be kids. So they contacted the town.

“I just thought it was an oversight, that they forgot to put the grates back,” said Fontana. So it was a shock to learn that they’d been removed by design.

“They’ve been off for several years now,” Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz said two weeks ago. He said he explained to Fontana that the town was having problems keeping tree limbs and other heavy debris from getting stuck in the rates. So the decision was made to remove them.

WHERE’S THE GRATES? — A swim line rope separates the Highland Lake dam control gate from the public swimming area, but that wasn’t good enough when two mothers realized recently the grates were not in place. They feared a small child could get caught against the current in periods of high flow and would be unable to pull themselves out. (Geraghty Photo)

WHERE’S THE GRATES? — A swim line rope separates the Highland Lake dam control gate from the public swimming area, but that wasn’t good enough when two mothers realized recently the grates were not in place. They feared a small child could get caught against the current in periods of high flow and would be unable to pull themselves out. (Geraghty Photo)

That didn’t set well with either of the women. “I’m not going to let this go,” said Martin, who was upset when her sister told her of Berkowitz’s explanation as to why the grates had been removed.

A few days before Labor Day Weekend, Martin and Berkowitz visited the dam. And Berkowitz was persuaded to have the rakes reinstalled in place.

“We certainly don’t want to see anybody get hurt,” Berkowitz said before the grates were put back in place. But he argued that the potential danger to a swimmer exists whether the grates are there or not. He noted that all of Bridgton’s public swimming areas are “swim-at-your-own-risk” and the town does not have lifeguards on duty. 
He also emphasized that the swim lines need to be heeded.

Fontana said perhaps the town should consider only removing the grates for a short period of time. “It only takes a few moments for somebody to lose track of their child. That’s all it would take.”

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