HARPSWELL — The town has applied for a $20,000 grant to study ways to protect an easily-flooded portion of Basin Point Road.
The road will act as a “test site” to guide the town’s long-term planning against the worsening effects of sea level rise, according to Mary Ann Nahf, chairwoman of the conservation commission, which could over time deal a blow to the environment and the local economy.
In an interview last week, she said what is happening at on Basin Point Road portends majors risks to the road, access, and wetlands in town where the dominant local industries rely on access or proximity to the ocean.
“The implications (of sea level rise) have been what we’re trying to get at here,” Nahf warned.
The town will be notified by the end of May if it received funding. Work is planned to take place from September to November 2018.
Crescent-shaped Basin Point Road traces the edge of Basin Cove, provides the sole access to dozens of homes, several businesses, and a popular restaurant at the tip of South Harpswell.
During major storms, water submerges a portion of the country road along “this skinny piece of land” between Basin Cove and Curtis Cove, Nahf said, which gradually deteriorates the road and pours saltwater into surrounding freshwater wetlands.
Without meaningful intervention, flooding could eventually block road access, resulting in “no way to get in or out” for residents and tourists who visit the outer reaches of the peninsula, Nahf noted.
It was the reason the road was picked for study, she said, and referred to a stack of letters from business and homeowners terrified by the idea that the ocean might swallow the only route inland.
“It’s not to scare people,” Nahf said of the study. “(But) we know this is happening.”
“We’ve got to start putting money away for this stuff,” she continued. “Many times, if you plan ahead, it ends up (being) cheaper than if you have to take care of it in an emergency situation.”
The town has been planning for predicted levels of sea level rise for years, and Nahf said the Basin Point Road study is the next step in the process.
In the past 100 years, she said the ocean has risen about six inches, although climate change is accelerating the trend.
Since 2010, Harpswell has partnered with local organizations such as Bowdoin College and the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership to identify the 14 coastal areas likely to be affected the most by sea level rise.
At a January 2015 workshop, residents ranked road infrastructure as their top priority in planning for the impact of climate change.
Combining that feedback with the available data, the Midcoast Council of Governments (MCOG) issued a report that created a chart of the 16 public roads most vulnerable to flooding and storm surges.
It identifies which roads would be affected by escalating levels of water of up to 6 feet, although Nahf said the town is concentrated on roads in the 1-foot column: Lookout Point Road, Long Point Road, Lowell’s Cove Road, Windsor Lane, and Basin Point Road.
The current flood levels at Basin Point Road are a good working “indicator of what it will look like when we get to 1 foot of (sea) rise,” Nafh explained.
King Tides and strong southwestern winds usually cause the road to be over-topping, she said, especially with the ocean level higher than it once was.
“(But) what’s going to happen over time is, both of these (coves) are going to encroaching on each other” as the water keeps rising, Nafh warned.
The prospect alarms area business owners, who worry that a rising tide will sink their enterprises.
“If Basin Point Road became impassable our business would not survive,” Bill Saxton, owner of the Dolphin Marina & Restaurant wrote in a letter supporting the grant.
A host of other businesses and homeowners submitted similar letters supporting the grant.
The Dolphin, a popular destination, especially in the summer tourist months, employs 90 people and served 85,000 diners in 2016, he wrote.
Saxton said he hired an engineering firm in 2009 to conduct a wave and flood analysis on the property.
“We have witnessed over the year the effect of high sea levels at our marina where we have had to lift our pier to accommodate the high sea level to protect our investment,” he wrote, echoing stories Nahf said she’s heard from area fishermen and wharf-builders who have tracked the sea level increase in similar ways.
The proposed study is two-pronged.
First, the town’s engineering firm, Gorrill Palmer, would develop potential upgrades to the road and culverts, outfitting them to handle rising tides; those plans would then function as a blueprint for long-term town-wide planning, according to Nahf.
Meanwhile, the Casco Bay Estuary Project would analyze impact to the area’s wetland ecology, including potential effects from the proposed road improvements and culverts.
In addition to two coves, the road abuts the Curtis Farm Preserve, a freshwater wetland managed by the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust that is home to hiking trails and wildlife nurseries. The preserve is a marine habitat and popular site for shellfish harvesting, according to the grant application.
Wetland flora can adapt to changing ecological composition brought about by an influx of saltwater, Nahf said, but not if the process happens too quickly.
How quickly? Nahf isn’t sure, but said Gorrill Palmer and CBEP will work in tandem to ensure a good balance is achieved between the costs protecting both the road and the wetland ecosystem.
The portion of South Harpswell’s Basin Point Road that snakes between Basin Cove, pictured, and Curtis Cove frequently floods during storm surges, and could eventually submerge the road. As the problem is expected to worsen as sea levels keep rising, the town has applied for a grant to fund protections to the road and area wetlands.