Much of Camden’s shoreline and stormwater infrastructure was designed for less water than we are dealing with today. Sea level and temperatures have risen and so has the amount of total precipitation that our coastal watershed receives. Whether or not and to what degree the changes are caused by human activity isn’t something we need to agree on in order to make better decisions about how resilient we want our community to be. Sometimes I wonder if the national politics of climate change is over-complicating a local issue that can be easily observed during very typical storm events in Camden.

I’ll admit that I was skeptical about how much of a problem extreme weather or climate change really is in Camden. I saw photos presented by students showing harbor park benches flooded and statements interpreting the images as a sign of doomsday scenarios from climate scientists, and I still figured we could probably put off the planning process for a little longer to see how things all turned out. It’s never as bad as they say it’s going to be, right?

But as I’ve been paying closer attention, reviewing Town budgets, watching the bills come in and wrestling with the astonishing price tags that go along with repairing things like granite steps tossed about by storm surge at Laite Beach, sink holes in parking lots, crumbling mortar on granite retaining walls, washed out culverts and roads, overflowing storm drains, sewer manholes that look like geysers when it rains, and a seawall that is showing signs of failing in the same place it fell down in 2005, it’s not even about preparing for changes. It’s about the weather events that are making stuff fall apart right now and the long-term cost of not thinking more carefully about which battles we wish to fight with Mother Nature. In some places we will need to build higher walls and bigger pipes at great cost. But where can, why not be smarter and make room for more water or rely on bedrock and not concrete?

The lawn of the Camden Yacht Club is covered in rock weed after a recent storm.

It is now common to see the entire lawn of the Camden Yacht Club and parts of Harbor Park covered with rock weed and other debris from the harbor. This is not reserved for 50- or 100-year storms nor astronomical high tides. It’s every time the wind blows hard from the east or southeast at the Yacht Club and it can be as often as four to eight times a month at Harbor Park. Sewer manholes overflow pretty consistently in certain places at about two to three inches of rain.

Waves coming into the harbor slam against the seawall at the Yacht Club.

The humbling, and erosive power of water was on display this weekend too. It can catch you off guard even when you think you’re expecting it and I’ve been making it a point to get out in the wind and the rain when I can to see what’s happening, often with a life jacket and a helmet just in case. I’ve sat through a lot of coastal resilience infrastructure webinars but there’s nothing like standing near the water during a storm to really drive the point home that nature-based solutions like boulders and bedrock and vegetative buffers are stronger and cheaper wherever possible.

Water finds the path of least resistance, and the greater the armoring and resistance that is built up in once spot, the greater the force will be in another spot. The weak point for the Yacht Club is the eastern corner where the seawall meets the parking lot. The reason that regulatory agencies and scientists are working to incentivize a move away from vertical seawalls wherever possible is that we now know they come with significant drawbacks, especially for adjacent properties. Finding ways to absorb rather than deflect this energy is important wherever possible.

Pictured is the section of seawall that collapsed and was rebuilt after heavy rains in 2005.

The seawalls in Harbor Park and the Yacht Club hold back soil that was imported to fill in a section of intertidal zone. Not surprisingly, our biggest sea level rise issues are in the places where we filled in the ocean to build there. These soils are increasingly saturated during extreme weather events and are showing the accelerated degradation that goes along with that. How many times would you replace the carpet in your flooded basement before making other plans?

A sewer manhole overflows during heavy rain infiltration.

In the meantime, we can continue to patch things up and drag granite back into place and fill in the holes but repairing grout and mortar in places where we cannot find a compromise with Mother Nature means a lot more maintenance than relying on our rocky coast. We ought to pick our battles wisely because there are many of them.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Select Board member. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.

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