Requiem for a Meter Man
Requiem for a Meter Man
No more strange footprints in the snow.
First the newsboy vanished from his street corner. Then the milkman stopped making his rounds. Now comes another development that portends the end of an era in the Pine Tree State. After nearly a century of service, the electric company meter reader is packing it in.
For decades the intrepid meter reader has been a familiar figure in Maine neighborhoods, easily identified by the strange footprints he or she leaves in the snow around one's house. But now technology, which has a way of replacing even the irreplaceable, has rendered the reader's exertions obsolete. In this instance, the Brave New World arrives in the form of an electromechanical meter that optically scans a home's electricity consumption and transmits the information back to a substation via the same electrical lines that supply your power. The new meter is called a "turtle."
In Aroostook County, where meter reading can resemble an extreme sport during a particularly nasty winter, the Maine Public Service Company has already replaced 71 percent of its 36,095 meters. Central Maine Power is phasing in the technology gradually, mostly on islands and particularly remote mountain sites. Within the past two years, Bangor Hydro has equipped virtually all of its 115,000 meters with the automated technology at a cost of $121 per meter. Today, it's saving about $2 million a year thanks to the turtles.
According to Bangor Hydro spokeswoman Kathy Billings, human meter readers are taking the new technology in stride, as it were. "Meter-reading is hard work; it's hard on the knees, hard on the body as you climb over snowbanks," Billings explains. "It's risky work, and most of the people who were employed by us as meter readers have moved on to other opportunities with us that will be better for them in the long run." (Presumably, these opportunities do not include having dogs bite them in the shin.) In the future, the technology will also allow electric companies to "ping" these automated meters to determine which homes have power and which do not during an outage.
So the Maine meter reader goes the way of the dodo. He, and she, will be missed. But at least homeowners who discover suspicious footprints outside their back windows will now know exactly what to do.
Call the cops.
The Pond That Vanished
Newcastle wants its lake back, but no one else gives a dam.
One night in October the old dam that held back Sherman Lake, on Route 1 in Newcastle at the Edgecomb border, washed out and took the lake with it, turning a placid body of water into a winding tidal stream and saltwater marsh. Now townsfolk in Newcastle are scratching their heads and wondering what to do about the problem of the disappearing lake.
"Thing is, the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) owned the dam, and it has already said it doesn't have the money to rebuild it and isn't in the dam-building business anyway," remarks Newcastle selectman Jim Brinkler. "We want our lake back, but we seem to be the only folks who do. And we don't have the money, either."
Back in 1934 the state built a new roadbed for Route 1 that cut off the top of what was called Marsh River, separating it from the tidal portion that fed the Sheepscot River. The dam created Sherman Lake. In the early 1960s Route 1 was rebuilt and a new bridge spanned the area where the earlier roadway sat, leaving the dam in the shadows underneath.
Meanwhile, Sherman Lake became such a popular recreational area that the state stocked the lake with trout and bass and built a small picnic and rest area just off the highway. Brinkler estimates 3,000 to 4,000 people a year used the lake for canoeing, fishing, and skating.
The impromptu dam, with a spillway and fish ladder installed, survived for decades with minimal maintenance. When it finally washed out in last year's phenomenally rainy autumn, some people were surprised it had lasted as long as it did. "Once the new bridge was built, most people forgot the old dam was there," Brinkler explains.
Initial estimates put the cost of a new dam at $1 million, "but that's just a wild guess," Brinkler allows. "The MDOT is saying that it would have to be built to current design standards. But the problem is, there's plenty of federal money for restoring salt marshes but not any at all for damming them up."
Barring a minor miracle, then, it appears that Newcastle has lost a lake and gained a marsh. "We have plenty of those already," Brinkler notes sadly.
Small Craft Warnings
This nightly forecast has a fierce following.
Snuggled up on the couch, a quilt wrapped around you as a blizzard rattles your windows, you might think it odd that television meteorologists still devote valuable airtime to the seemingly irrelevant marine forecast. Even the most optimistic boaters have resigned themselves to the fact that their vessels will remain sealed under shrinkwrap for at least another three months. And yet the sweater-clad Storm Center personalities continue to explain that seas will be running six to eight feet on the Gulf of Maine and small craft warnings are up. Who cares?
Fishermen, lobstermen, and even people who have to venture out on the state-owned ferries during the winter months, that's who cares, says WCSH6's Joe Cupo. "That marine forecast is not just for the recreational sailors and boaters, it's also for the lobstermen and fishermen," Cupo explains. "At nighttime, before they go to bed, they're turning us on. Sure, they may be checking the forecast again on their marine radio in the morning, but they're definitely watching at 10 o'clock."
Cupo says he's frequently approached by mariners who thank him for the nightly marine weather updates he provides, testimonials he relies upon when clueless execs try to alter television programming in Maine. "We had a consultant who came up from Hartford or someplace, and that's one of the things that he recommended doing, that we drop the marine forecast, and we said, 'Are you out of your frigging mind?' I mean there'd be a revolution against us."
Maine's Own C-Span
Legislators are about to become video stars.
Political junkies and the merely curious will have a new way to follow the action in the Maine House of Representatives this year with the installation of an Internet Webcam that will offer streaming video and audio of House proceedings. Speaker John Richardson (D-Brunswick) ordered the camera despite some initial trepidation that he might be turning the House into a collection of video divas vying for attention on the Webcasts.
"I think the time has come," Richardson reasons. "Some thirty other states already have video links. We've become a citizenry that uses video and television to learn, and I think this makes the work of the House a more transparent process."
Initially, only one camera will be installed and it will be focused on the podium at the front of the chamber where the Speaker or his designated representative stands. When a member stands to speak, his or her photograph will appear in a corner of the screen. Richardson says he hopes to see two additional cameras in place next year and another the year after. Eventually, cameras will show the entire chamber as well as focus on individual speakers. The software that controls the cameras will not require any additional staff to operate the system, Richardson says.
"I was somewhat concerned about the effect of the cameras on the decorum of the House," Richardson confesses. "I was afraid everyone would want to speak. But I went to a national speaker's conference recently where that was a topic, and most people said there was less debate after the cameras were installed because people were self-conscious about how they would look to their constituents on camera."
Or perhaps they recall German politician Otto Von Bismarck, who famously said: "Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made." Now Mainers will have the chance to see if Bismarck was right.
Glitch in the Catch
Lobstermen are wondering about the beginning of the end.
No one is panicking yet, but lobster fishermen and marine biologists are wondering why last year's lobster catch was down for the third year in a row. "We certainly haven't fallen off a cliff," cautions Carl Wilson, the lead lobster biologist for the Department of Marine Resources, "but for a fishery that has become geared toward high levels of catches, the reality didn't match the expectations."
Wilson says the lobster season got off to a reasonably encouraging start in April and May, but catches fell off dramatically over the summer and didn't begin to pick up again until October. Lobstermen in Penobscot Bay, for example, saw days when they pulled more than 100 traps and harvested fewer than ten legal lobsters.
"The fishery depends on the summer molting season," Wilson explains. "In the late 1990s and early 2000s [years of peak harvests], the lobsters had an early molt and then, bam, there they were, climbing into the traps. This year the molt started late and staggered along throughout the summer." He cited the cool, rainy spring and the slow warm-up of coastal waters as major factors.
Even with healthy catches in autumn and early winter, Wilson expects the final numbers to reflect another year of decreasing harvests. "We're coming off the 2002 peak with the third consecutive year of modest declines," he offers. "We're still double, almost triple, the 100-year average." The 70-million-pound lobster catch in 2004 was about 18 percent below 2002.
On the other hand, a new lobster stock assessment in the Gulf of Maine concluded that the fishery is in good shape, Wilson adds. "For the first time, the resource got positive marks," he says. Previous assessments had painted a grimmer picture of potential problems as biologists analyzed data on juvenile lobster populations and other information. That's good news for lobstermen who are tired of finding empty traps.
Silence Is Golden
Public radio finds less is more in fund-raising drives.
Maine Public Radio has discovered a new rule when it comes to its regular fund-raising campaigns: Silence is golden. By sparing listeners the interminable and often annoying pleas for memberships and donations, the network is raising more money in less time and the audience isn't tuning out in the process. And perhaps it is reaffirming an old rule: Mainers by and large don't need or want to be oversold on something they already value.
"People love our programming, but they don't like the membership campaigns," acknowledges Charles Beck, the radio service vice-president at Maine Public Broadcasting, which oversees the seven stations that are part of the public radio system in Maine. For the October fund drive, listeners were warned well in advance that the drive was coming, and on the day before the on-air campaign began the network programmed a "power hour" membership drive. The implied message was, of course, the more money the network raised during that hour, the less listeners would have to hear about it later.
"Our phone banks were overwhelmed," Beck recalls. "The power hour alone raised $62,000" toward an overall goal of $200,000. During the campaign itself, appeals were limited to a few minutes between regular programs throughout the day. The network reached its goal on the fifth day of what was supposed to be a seven-day campaign.
"The most common comment I heard was, 'I didn't need to change the station this time'," Beck notes. "Folks want their programming, and this was something we could do to make it as painless as possible."
Beck expects to repeat the approach. "It was more successful than what we've been doing in the past," he notes. Which brings up another old Maine rule: Use what works.