Friday, Dec. 23, was no ordinary high tide.

For three to four years, I’ve made it a habit of going down to the harbor in all types of weather to see the changing tides. I’ve written lots about it and taken countless pictures and videos, but Friday was different. Often times, I’m sharing photos and videos of these nuisance flooding events with a caption that says something about one of the missing variables which could have made it a whole lot worse.

Years ago, I saw a presentation given by students at Watershed School on sea level rise and they included a photo of the Harbor Park benches partially submerged at high tide. It was the first time I had seen this, and I assumed at the time that it happened maybe once or twice a year. When I first started really paying attention to town infrastructure, both on the Conservation Commission and then later as an elected Select Board member, I still believed that sea level rise was something we could wait and see about.

But while filming different types of fish in the harbor, I was caught off guard multiple times by the tide rising over the sea wall in Harbor Park, even on nights when everything was completely flat and calm. It didn’t take a mega high tide to do it. There are tons of variables when it comes to the actual tide levels on any given day, but a rough benchmark began to emerge at somewhere around 11.9 feet.

With all other variables out of the picture and a perfectly calm sea with no wind I would see the water lapping over the edge of the sea wall when the predicted tide was around 11.9 feet. Add in a little storm surge, with the wind blowing from either the east or the southeast, and even a much lower “high tide” could push the water well up over the wall.

What’s the big deal about a little flooding in Harbor Park? Stop trying to change things. This has always happened. Just do some maintenance. Well, the sea has risen about 8 inches since 1950, which is the last time a major design change was made to the sea wall in Harbor Park. That may not seem like much, but when you build everything up to the edge of a vertical wall that’s not designed to get wet on the other side, there’s a lot less margin for error. It can get wet every so often without major issues, but all the small overtopping events slowly weaken it.

When I drove down to the Yacht Club and Public Landing, I had to watch for more than big waves, branches, and seaweed this time. Even after the water subsided, the debris field included a treacherous mix of manmade objects: lumber, nails, and a whole lot more. Driving over nails is usually a problem I only have to worry about at the transfer station. We will be picking up debris of all kinds for days to come. There are bigger repairs too. Part of the sea wall fell down in Harbor Park — the part that had been built a little higher and just recently underwent some repair.

Thankfully, we didn’t get as much rain as predicted, but the ocean made up for it and then some. The predicted tide level for Friday morning was 12.1 feet — one of the highest tides of the month, but not the highest tide of the year by any means. What got the attention of weather watchers was the direction of the wind. Camden Harbor is sheltered from a lot of storm surges but when the wind blows from the east or southeast it changes everything.

The prediction was for southeasterly winds, but it actually ended up a little more from the east than the south, which would have made the storm surge even worse.

There’s a big difference between the type of debris that results when natural areas are flooded as opposed to buildings and manmade structures being flooded. When flooding occurs in built-up areas that aren’t well engineered for moving water, you end up with private piers and all their nails, wiring, and whatever else is floating around the harbor crashing up onto shore somewhere.

Years ago, there was considerable debate over whether to allow a private pier at the property next to the Yacht Club. The concern centered around everything from aesthetics to obstructing navigation for the youth sailing program. The right of private property owners to build their own structures out into the shared intertidal zone won the day. We’ve all watched bits and pieces falling off this pier for years, mostly too little at a time to notice. On Friday, the whole thing fell off its granite support system, broke apart, and pieces of it came crashing into the Yacht Club. There is lumber all over the harbor.

The same thing happens with some of the buildings built right over the river. Pieces of them are swept away in the middle of big tides or rain events. Sometimes it will be worse than just nails. Propane tanks, refrigerator coolants, paint, fuel, and every form of plastic imaginable. When flooding damages private property, it’s not just a private property problem. It becomes everyone’s problem.

Sea level in Maine is rising at a rate of roughly 1 inch every eight years. It doesn’t matter whether you believe that humans are to blame or not. We don’t need to argue about whether you are helping or hurting things with the type of car you drive. Those are all theoretical distractions from the very practical problem before us — one that is caused by the insatiable desire that people have to build closer and closer to the water. For most of history, the proliferation of piers in the outer and coastal harbor has been kept at bay because people understood that the ocean outside of the protected inner harbor is so unstoppable and unforgiving that you probably wouldn’t want to tie a boat up there on most days anyway.

We have let people go ahead and build things, imagining that they are the only ones who suffer when things fall apart, but flooded properties along lakes, rivers, and the ocean can easily become everyone’s problem. This is part of the reason why the federal government forces flood zones to be mapped and considered differently. We have to think not just about the impact that flooding may have on the flooded property but also what happens to the pieces that break away.

Pulling up sand and rockweed from public parking lots and front lawns is manageable in my mind, but let’s plan for a future where we don’t have to worry too much about private piers and propane tanks floating around.

 

 

 

 

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.  

filed under: