By Courtney Cease

On April 8, heavy rains created majestic waterfalls on Mount Megunticook and overwhelmed parts of Camden’s stormwater and sewage systems. Roads and lawns were flooded throughout the town. It was both awe-inspiring and a humbling hint of what’s to come as rising temperatures drive an increase in heavy rainfall in Maine.

Since 1913, average annual rainfall in our area has risen by 16 inches. That’s 9 billion extra gallons of water falling throughout the Megunticook Watershed every year. This water must filter through Camden’s aging dams and narrow downtown drainage channel. And that’s not all: over the next 30 years, yearly precipitation is projected to rise an additional 9 inches (or 5 billion gallons). Our dams, most of which were built in the 19th century, were not built to handle this much water.

The Megunticook watershed and dam management system have been extensively studied and discussed over the last few years. So why can’t we agree on how to manage our mounting flood problem? And how should we proceed? For answers, I reached out to Dr. Parker Gassett, the Community Climate Resilience Coordinator for the University of Maine’s Sea Grant program. Parker, who specializes in ecology and environmental science, helps communities like ours develop climate resiliency strategies. He also lives in Camden.

With so many different voices and opinions, where do we begin?

The first step, Parker told me, is to invite community members to share their values and concerns before we take positions on specific solutions. “I think more trust can be built among the stakeholders in Camden if our conversation is more focused on the vision of what we’d like to have created, rather than the specific approach to get there.”

He suggested that we first identify our broader interests, such as maintaining the beauty and history of the harbor falls, repopulating the river and lake with native fish, improving the health of the watershed, or reducing the damages and costs associated with flooding. “There’s room for all of it in our collective vision,” he said. Once we establish this vision and community members feel that their voices are being heard, it can then help guide our choices moving forward.

How do we build flood resilience?

First and foremost, he said we need to “give more space for the river to flood and ebb naturally.” During heavy rains, the land along the river should act like a “giant sponge that soaks up the rain and slows down the peak flow of the water moving through the system.” Flooding occurs when the sponge is too small or at maximum saturation. “When a dam maintains a higher water level, the sponge is already full – it can’t absorb any more water.”

Expanding adjacent green spaces and removing dams can alleviate pressure throughout the stormwater system by increasing the land’s ability to absorb heavy rains. Parker emphasized that such measures would become increasingly important as heavy rains become more frequent. He also highlighted the importance of upgrading stormwater systems (drainage pipes, culverts, and ditches) to tolerate more water – especially where repetitive damages occur.

What steps has the town taken so far?

“Public officials are making great progress,” Parker noted. Over the last year, they have been working through the Maine Flood Resilience Checklist. This is a self-assessment tool that helps Maine communities evaluate their readiness to prepare for, respond to, and recover from flooding events and sea-level rise.

“The next step,” he said, “is figuring out our top five to 10 strategies and galvanizing community action.” While town officials are aware of this important endeavor, “day to day needs often take priority over long term planning,” he noted. “It will take the involvement of the whole community to create meaningful change.”

Do we have enough information to make meaningful progress?

“First, we need to acknowledge as a community that rainfall and floods are intensifying with climate change,” Parker said. “The price tag of preparing for climate change is an investment with real returns.”

Moving forward, “initial studies and consultants have produced useful information,” he said. More precise hydrological modeling can help us to make more detailed risk assessments and decisions about how close we are willing to build next to flood-prone areas. “But we have plenty of information and community knowledge now to make important progress.”

“It’s time to think about ways that we can work together to pursue solutions,” he said. “There’s a lot of DIY identity in our town, so let’s channel that energy into some community-based projects and work together.”

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.

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