Do you know what a catch basin is? How about a culvert? A pipe? A drain? We have sewer water, storm water, drinking water and everything in between, but keeping it where it belongs is no easy task. I’ll admit to having a lot of strong feelings about how important it is to have high standards and good environmental practices, but if I’m completely honest, becoming an elected official and being forced to look more closely made it clear that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Like many, I want the town to prioritize clean water and sound environmental practices, but I knew very little about the fundamentals of road construction. I could fake it pretty well, but there was a gap between my book knowledge, idealistic notions and actual street experience.

As a kid, one of the  first books I remember was Richard Scarry’s “What Do People Do All Day.” It contained fascinating illustrations of some of the most basic parts of a town and the way it works.

There were drawings of delivery trucks and schools, roads, factories and behind the scenes perspectives of things like conveyor belts, restaurant kitchens and all the pipes underneath our homes and roads that we usually don’t have to stop and think about.

Kids have a natural curiosity for the fundamentals, but at some point, we get older and stop looking down storm drains and trying to crawl into pipes to see where the water goes.

I’ve often daydreamed about drawing Camden in the same way that Richard Scarry depicted the imaginary Busy Town. Part of the road would be transparent to offer a visual of all the pipes, utility vaults, basins and caverns beneath us. We’d learn things well enough to see a depression forming in the road and instantly visualize the material beneath it and what was happening — perhaps the collapse of an aging clay sewer pipe.

Yep, many of the pipes that carry fecal matter to the treatment plant are still made of clay.

Most of the time we don’t think about any of it until something goes wrong. Infrastructure projects are done in a way that lets people drive by half asleep without ever taking a closer look, but just 100 years ago, people still knew what their roads were made of and what lay beneath. They saw the great benefits and corresponding consequences of all kinds of different approaches.

The Feb. 23, 1984, edition of The Camden Herald published a great piece by Arthur Wall (1899-1977) titled “Building The Road—1909” and it recounts the author’s memories as a young boy when the “miracle of the century happened” and a “hard surfaced road was built between Rockport and Rockland.”

Almost all of it was done by hand and horses as there was no such thing as trucks at that point. He describes the work, which took two summers as the crew started in Rockland and progressed toward Rockport:

“They had a big crew of Italians working ahead of the road construction putting in culverts and bridges and draining swampy places in the right of way. A half a mile or so below my home was a small brook which crossed the road beneath an old wooden bridge. At that time there were trout in this brook and my buddy, Earl Watts, and I used to lie on our stomachs on the bridge and watch them. We didn’t know what kind of fish they were. All we knew was that they were pretty with a lot of colored spots on them. We never dreamed of trying to catch them. All we knew about catching fish was in the ocean for cunners, flounders and harbor pollock. Each day the construction crew drew nearer and nearer to our bridge where the pretty little fish were. At last came the day when they ripped out the bridge, made concrete forms, and a day or two later the old bridge was replaced with a large culvert large enough for us boys to walk through, but never once after that did we see our pretty fish.”

I do not know where the author lived precisely, so I don’t know which Rockport brook he is talking about, but the story has been repeated thousands of times and is one of the many reasons why you cannot separate environmental matters from road construction practices.

In a state like ours, with lots of little streams and close proximity to the ocean, our brooks are like blood vessels and the rivers serve as arteries. They are intended for two-way traffic of fish and other organisms, but when we build our roads over top, the cheapest and safest solution in the short term has been to put the stream in a pipe or concrete box and build the road on top.

The elevation is often such that the culvert winds up hanging at the end and spilling the stream out beneath it, blocking any chance of upstream passage for fish and often forcing other wildlife to cross the road rather than travel along the stream banks.

The Midcoast, like many places, went through a period where culverts became the preferred option for crossing streams and rivers. This was partially because bridges were often considered dangerous due to common collapses before modern engineering standards. The better we got at fabricating pipes, the more it seemed like burying streams was the solution to all our water problems.

Two summers ago, MDOT’s downtown drainage project gave the best opportunity in many years to peek underneath the layers of civil engineering and decision making in Camden, and it did not disappoint. I looked in every hole I could for signs of the way things used to be, keeping my eyes peeled for everything from bricks to bedrock to arrowheads. I was especially interested in identifying places with virgin or native soil as opposed to the places that had been filled.

The main point of the project was to keep water moving through the downtown without washing out roads, but from above, it was hard to see the urgency of the matter, at least to me. But as I chatted more with the contractors and they pointed out the things that were mostly invisible to me, I began to see what others saw. The drainage pipes were starting to collapse, creating divots in the road and ponding water in the sidewalks.

I remember looking at the plans for the downtown drainage project a couple years earlier and thinking I understood what was going on. They asked for a new easement from the town to run a culvert from Main Street down the alleyway in between the Sea Dog and Lily Lupine and Fern. The culvert would go underground, crossing a little section of the Public Landing and down into the Harbor. It didn’t seem like a big deal. At least the town wouldn’t be paying for it.

Well, when construction day came about, it was a lot more than the proverbial rubber meeting the road. Adding a drainage pipe from Main Street to the Harbor involved jack hammering through bedrock. Understandably, business owners were alarmed to find glass bottles rattling as the entire downtown seemed to shake.

When questions started flying about the wisdom of hammering through bedrock rather than letting the water from Main Street go into the river, we learned that they had determined there wouldn’t be enough capacity for additional stormwater under the Main Street Bridge, in large part due to the fact that the Montgomery Dam raises the water level behind it.

Photos below showing the new drainage line that was installed to divert storm water from Main Street to the Public Landing. Alison McKellar

As they dug up the Public Landing, they had more water problems and learned quickly to time their digging with the tides. At high tide, they didn’t have to dig far to find water just below the surface of the parking lot and we were all reminded that the shoreline, until recently, was right up near the Chamber of Commerce building. During construction, bedrock and old marine hardware affixed to it spoke of a time when the wharves and docks were not there for tying up boats.

We go to a lot of trouble to keep water running below our roads and not on top of them. It seems that the more we abandon the streams and brooks — which are nature’s historic drainage pathways — the more it costs us in the long term.

In downtown Camden, we have buildings on top of our streams, parking lots in the ocean and now we’re stuck hammering through bedrock, desperate for somewhere for the water to go. Some of this makes sense and in some places it may not. The new, big, ugly pipe in one of Maine’s prettiest harbors is a reminder to me that the way we build roads impacts everything.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and member of the Select Board. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board.

We seldom think of all the pipes that run under the streets. Alison McKellar

Work at the Public Landing. Alison McKellar