by Elisa Hawkes
Coastal Journal staff
DAMARISCOTTA — Dr. Samuel Merrill, Research Professor at the Muskie School and Director of the New England Environmental Finance Center, and an expert on the topic of rising sea levels, visited the Lincoln Theatre in Damariscotta on July 10 to talk about those rising sea levels, and the potential for a damaging storm surge in the area. The good-size crowd listened intently while Merrill spoke of the COAST (COastal Adaptation to Sea level rise Tool) method of planning for such an event, and listened to him outline studies done for York County and Portland.
The Comprehensive Plan Update (CPU) Steering Committee, appointed by the Damariscotta Board of Selectmen, is working towards creating a storm-surge plan as part of the CPU. The committee is co-chaired by Damariscotta residents Dick McLean and Ronn Orenstein, and public meetings and hearings to formulate the plan are set to be held in the near future.
The potential for rising sea levels, combined with high tides and storm surges, is a continuing concern for those who live or have a business in and around tidal areas, including Miles Memorial Hospital. To better prepare for all possibilities, Lincoln County is studying the rise in sea levels and its effect on a number of communities. These studies will provide valuable information to the CPU Steering Committee for its plan and for use with the COAST planning tool.
Merrill said the general public has largely ignored rising sea levels and storm surge potential. He said people recognize the problem, but seldom take any action. According to Merrill, this is a symptom of denial. He said that people seem to believe the consequences of rising seas are far in the future; that the cost-benefit relationship for taking action is ambiguous; that the possible actions are complex; and that doing nothing is far easier. In essence, denial works.
According to Merrill, communities have four options for dealing with the problem: Do nothing, or remain in denial; fortify community assets; accommodate higher water levels; or relocate community assets. Merrill says a combination of these options may be used, but based on his presentation, denial is probably no longer an option.
“COAST is a tool and approach to help evaluate cost and benefits of these options,” Merrill said.
The COAST strategy does not address climate change. What is relevant is that sea levels are changing. The observed, empirical data show measurable, local changes. Through three-dimensional visualization and a scenario-based approach, COAST empowers the planners with a sense of what is possible. Once studies, reports and other data are provided, the stakeholders (community members) come up with the plan that best suits them.
COAST is a stakeholder-driven process, meaning the business owners and residents work together to understand the problem, and ultimately decide upon a solution.
In terms of studies that have been done to date, there are several things now known. York County coastal communities are already experiencing increasing severity and frequency of coastal storm events. Climate change and sea level rise will exacerbate the effects of storm surges in the next 20 years. What was once called a “100-year storm” will now occur every 10 years. The minor risk from hurricanes will rise with warmer waters. The economy of York County towns will be threatened, as storms increase in scope and damage throughout the next several decades, wreaking repeated devastation. Insurance rates for these businesses will be a major problem, even before the sea actually hits them.
Merrill referenced the 2007 Patriot’s Day Storm (April 16) that brought devastation to many coastal Maine communities, with over 12-foot storm-surge related flood levels in Portland and up to 30-foot waves.
The evidence is undeniable, Merrill said. Sea levels and high-tide marks are rising, and storm surge – essentially the rise in water levels associated with a low pressure weather system – is worsening. The question for each community is what to do about it. The COAST process allows stakeholders to specify location and vulnerable asset to be discussed, select time horizons, sea level rise and storm surge thresholds, select adaptation action, estimate costs, input reference data, run computer models, and use maps, tables, and 3D visuals in a public process. This provides the tools necessary for a public discussion based upon factors with which each community feels comfortable.
The next step in the process is to decide which assets are most important to the community. A list of possible assets and affected parts of the community include real estate values, overall economic effects, public health impacts, displaced persons, natural resource values, and infrastructure sectors such as transportation, energy, and telecommunications.
Finally, the process calls for a determination of the actions to be taken. In terms of adaptation actions, there are hard or soft possibilities, including revetments (often rocky barriers to flooding), geotextile tubes (large, soft, sand-filled tubes), sea walls, jetties, and other creative approaches.
Sometimes actions may include incentives, zoning, and other regulatory changes. Some communities require new construction to be built according to flood zone requirements. Others require old construction to add safety features.
The most important thing, according to Merrill, is to get the discussion going. Discourse is the first step toward making the community safe – physically, emotionally, and economically – according to the priorities of the stakeholders.
In Damariscotta, the Great Salt Bay and the Damariscotta River both have the potential for destructive flooding. At the July 10 meeting, the beginnings of a dialogue ensued after Merrill concluded his presentation. McLean and Orenstein fielded audience questions, and spoke about getting town and committee meetings underway to discuss the issue.
One woman from Bristol asked if people in her town would be made part of the process. McLean said people from any of the communities in the area would be welcome to take part in the discussions, but only Damariscotta voters would be able to decide on policy for Damariscotta. He did say everyone has something to bring to the process.
This was followed by a brief discussion of the possible effects of rising seas and storm surges on Route 129, Eddy Road, and the Yellowfront/Rising Tide area on Business Route 1, as well as saltwater intrusion and the vulnerability of drinking water.
Merrill said he was happy to see discussion beginning. He has seen the process start in this manner many times. He said it is a good first step in taking action to prepare for rising sea levels.
Merrill ended his presentation by quoting 13th century Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi – a quote the CPU is trying to exemplify:
“Learn the alchemy true human beings know. The moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door will open.”