by Courtney Cease

As I write this, a warm rain is melting nearly all the snow in my yard. Again. I glance at my barely used snowshoes and Camden Snow Bowl pass. What has happened to our snowy Maine winters?

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Maine Coast’s average annual temperature has increased by 3.4 degrees F since 1895 — more than double the global average. Winters have shortened by two weeks. By the end of the century, Maine’s average temperature is projected to climb another 7 to 13 degrees F.

The Gulf of Maine is warming at an alarming rate, faster than 99% of the world’s oceans. Increasing temperatures are also causing rising sea levels, higher precipitation (with decreasing snowpack), and more frequent downpours, floods, heat waves, droughts, and high winds. Not to mention a proliferation of tick-borne illness and the shrinking of Maine’s iconic lobster populations.

With our maritime and tourism-based economy and eight miles of shoreline, Camden is particularly vulnerable to rising seas. The Maine Climate Council recommends preparing for 1.5 feet of sea level rise by 2050 — which would flood portions of the public landing and at least 15 buildings — and four feet by 2100. Ocean waters are already flooding the seawall and Harbor Park an average of four times a month.

To complicate matters, heavier rains are placing mounting pressure on our town’s 19th-century dam and storm water system. This system was designed to manage far less water than we are dealing with today.

Average annual precipitation in the Camden area has increased by approximately 16 inches since 1913. That’s nine billion extra gallons of water falling annually on the 32-square-mile Megunticook Watershed. Most of this water drains through Camden’s dam system and narrow downtown drainage channel. Over the next 30 years, average yearly rainfall is projected to rise by another nine inches.

Dam management on the Megunticook River is no easy task. It is labor-intensive and necessitates careful risk calculations. And the system isn’t foolproof. During the flood of 1922, six to eight inches of rainfall overwhelmed the dams, flooding the downtown and causing $1.8 million in damages (in 2022 dollars).

With rising precipitation and an aging dam system, it’s just a matter of time before we have another serious flood event. (We had a near miss last October.) But next time, we’ll face much higher costs and losses.

Assessing dam management options for the Megunticook River has been the subject of extensive study and public comment. The recent Inter-Fluve study recommends removing the Montgomery Dam and the three dams above it (Knox Mill, Knowlton Street, and Powder Mill). The upper dams (Seabright, East, and West) are not candidates for removal because they regulate water levels in Megunticook Lake.

Removing these four dams would allow nearly two miles of the river to flow freely and release heavy rainfall naturally, at its own pace. It would reduce flood risk for 94 homes and other properties and save taxpayers millions of dollars in likely flood damages, not to mention dam operation and repair costs. It would also give us the opportunity to design a beautiful, natural 15-foot waterfall and park that could be just as iconic and picturesque as the current falls.

Restoring the river’s natural flow would also provide valuable environmental benefits. It would improve water oxygen and nutrient levels, making the river more hospitable for fish, plants, and wildlife, and enable native fish such as alewives and rainbow smelt to complete their annual upriver migrations once again. Enhancing the health of the watershed would also make it more resilient to climate change as healthier ecosystems are better prepared to absorb environmental changes.

The good news is that NOAA will soon be offering grant funding for river restoration and dam removal projects in towns like ours. This is an incredible opportunity for Camden that might not come again.

Dam removal would be only one aspect of a comprehensive climate resiliency plan. Other key measures include flood-proofing buildings and harbor infrastructure, relocating vulnerable structures, boardwalks, walking paths, and sewage drains, installing breakwaters, seawalls, and natural buffers, and protecting natural spaces.

Climate resiliency requires understanding the oncoming threats and preparing for them. It also takes a village. It will require each of us to consider our collective future in ways we haven’t before. It will necessitate coming together as a community and making hard choices and necessary changes so that our town can continue to thrive economically and ecologically for its residents and visitors, current and future.

Courtney Cease is a Camden resident who worked on climate and sustainability programs at the World Bank and US Department of State. For more information, please visit the Restore Megunticook website. Restore Megunticook is written by a diverse group of Camden residents who want to face climate threats responsibly and are committed to a civil community conversation about the ecology of the Megunticook River. Their views do not reflect the editorial position of The Camden Herald.