Harpswell report says rising sea threatens town roads

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HARPSWELL — Some of the town’s critical infrastructure is vulnerable to rising seas, according to a new report.

The report, “Harpswell Coastal Flooding Risk Assessment,” prepared by the Midcoast Council of Governments, is the culmination of a project started in January.

At a workshop earlier this year held by the town, attendees indicated they were most concerned with knowing how sea level rise would affect the town’s roads.

Using modelling data developed by the Maine Geological Survey, MCOG identified areas that would be impacted by water levels one, two, three, and six feet above highest astronomical tide, which represents the highest predicted tide level in a year.

The latest scientific predictions for sea level rise are one foot by 2050, and two to three feet or greater by 2100, according to MGS marine geologist Pete Slovinsky.

Harpswell’s rocky coastal geography protects many of its roads from all but the highest sea level predictions.

But MCOG identified three areas threatened under all four scenarios.

The first is the low-lying area of Route 123 as it crosses from Brunswick to Harpswell Neck. MCOG found the road will experience flooding at 3.3 feet above the current highest annual tide.

MCOG Program Director Scott Hastings, who organized the report, stressed that these projections should not only be seen as changes in absolute elevation, but demonstrate the impact of storm surges, too.

For example, a storm surge now hitting at around high tide could inundate the road.

“This has a significant impact in terms of emergency services and evacuation response,” Hastings told selectmen and members of the Conservation Commission at a meeting on Monday.

The other areas of concern are on Basin Point Road, where the road crosses a stream flowing from the Curtis Farm Preserve, and the Gun Point and Little Crow Point intersections of Long Point Road.

Jackie Tuttle, who has lived on Long Point Road with her husband Phil for about 40 years, said she already sees the ocean overtake the road on occasion.

“(It) happens so seldom, maybe once in 10 years,” Tuttle said. But with current predictions, that uncommon event could happen more frequently.

“Keep it on the list,” she said.

Barriers to adaptation

Identifying problem areas is one thing. Addressing them is much more complicated, Hastings said.

He stressed that town officials need to “(prioritize) what needs to be done to what is most important for the town … and what serves the largest amount of people.”

One thing he suggested is making sure the low-lying area of Route 123 is buffered from the sea when the road gets rebuilt.

But that road is the state’s responsibility to maintain, and “they have a lot going on,” Hastings noted.

Selectman Kevin Johnson estimated the road is slated for repair sometime in the next 10 years. He said he expects sea level rise projections to be taken into consideration.

“They’re on top of it,” he said.

Many roads in Harpswell, however, including Long Point Road, are privately owned. State law prohibits public funds from being used to upgrade these roads.

Conservation Commission member Mary Ann Nahf said getting private road associations involved in the discussion is going to be essential in planning for sea level rise.

Selectman Elinor Multer agreed.

“It’s in our mutual interest to limit the number of properties affected in the future,” Multer said.

The owners of roads and homes “will not just quietly disappear when they’re flooded out,” she said.

After the meeting, Johnson said although it’s good to make long-term plans, the projections don’t worry him too much.

“This is not going to happen tomorrow,” he said. “It’s not a disaster movie.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.