I looked at the weather forecast Saturday morning, Oct. 30, as I often do and saw that there was some rain coming in late. It was expected to be heavy at times…  maybe a little more than 2.5 inches. We have been mapping out the storm water system in Camden to identify and track issues like flow capacity and contamination sources, so each rain storm is an opportunity to learn a little more.

It would make for a wet night and early morning, but nothing out of the ordinary, I thought.

The majority of the water that comes down Megunticook River on its way to Camden Harbor actually falls first in Lincolnville. It makes its way to Megunticook Lake and then down into the River through a pair of outlet dams on Molyneaux Road. When the water level is below the top of the dams, the amount of water that flows out depends on how much the gates are opened.

I knew the lake had already been lowered to about 2 feet below the crest of the east and west dams, and that the gates were set to be open only minimally. The fall drawdown is part of the policy established many years ago to help create space for spring storms and snowmelt. It’s a strategy to throttle the amount of water sent to downtown Camden at any given time.

No one expected to see any noteworthy flooding in Camden around the Megunticook River given the tremendous storage capacity of the lake under these circumstances.

But what happened was quite different than we expected. Instead of 2.5 inches of rain, we got more than 5 inches in Camden over a period of 8 hours or so. Flooding was observed in places I have never seen it before.

Things started catching up to us at around 3 a.m. as the fire department and public works crews started taking calls. As water fell throughout the watershed, it found its way to culverts, ditches, pipes and small tributaries of the Megunticook River. In some places, the river flexes and swells and quickens its pace without issue, expanding into the natural floodplain. In others though, especially as it enters downtown Camden, it encounters a series of choke points like roads with undersized culverts, pipes, buildings, narrow channels and dams.

When more water is coming down the river than can fit through these choke points, it takes the path of least resistance, rising in elevation and spreading out over a wider area until it reaches equilibrium.

Camden residents in many places reported more water than they had ever seen. Flooded basements, overflowing sewer manholes and washed out roads.

What many people don’t know is that during this entire time the flow from the lake remained the same. The water level slowly rose behind the two dams, but by the time it stopped raining Sunday morning, water still wasn’t coming over the top of the spillways. The lake was once again at its optimal summer level and at around 9 a.m. on Sunday had just started to spill over. Even though it had stopped raining by then, as all the water from Lincolnville and Hope came rushing or meandering down, the level at the lake continued to rise.

By Sunday afternoon, people on Megunticook Lake and Norton Pond started to report higher than desirable water levels. By Monday morning the picnic tables were partially under water at Barrett’s Cove and the portable toilets at Bog Bridge were getting wet too. People were understandably starting to get frustrated and concerned as they watched their floats and front lawns become submerged.

So why wasn’t the town opening the gates? Having seen the building envelope of the Smiling Cow 3 to 3 feet under water, a stream flowing across Rawson Avenue, the Knowlton Street Dam being threatened with washout and the torrent just inches from bypassing a protective wall at the Knox Mill, I suspected I knew what our Dam Control agent would say when I called to verify.

Where’s it going to go? There was no room for more water in downtown Camden, where it all must inevitably go as it makes its way to Camden Harbor and Penobscot Bay.

Dave Bolstridge, the Town’s Dam control agent, who is also the Wastewater Superintendant, must carefully monitor the choke points downtown in order to know if it is safe to let more water out of the lake. The goal is to not let the water reach the building envelope of the Smiling Cow, and if it is already a foot or so underwater, the lake dams do not get opened any wider. Flooded buildings in the downtown are not just a risk to the property owners themselves. Logs can get jammed, material falls off, and pollutants released into the water.

By Monday morning, with water on the lake threatening to overtake the entirety of the paved area at Bog Bridge on Route 105, the water had receded enough downtown to open up the East Dam completely and crack the gate on the West Dam, sending more water down into Camden under Main Street and into the harbor. Dave told me he planned to monitor the impact of opening the gates on the Smiling Cow and if possible he would open the gate on the West Dam all the way too.

The goal now will be to keep the dams open as much as possible to lower the lake back down to the winter target of 2 feet below the spillway. Let’s just hope that happens before the next big rain event and that it is not 8 inches instead of 5 next time. We were lucky, but the lake is already full and there is no room downtown.

Alison McKellar is a member of The Camden Select Board. Her views are her own and do not reflect the editorial position of The Camden Herald.