State puts climate change planning on shelf; towns fend for themselves

Recent severe storms are the only the beginning of severe weather to come in the future thanks to climate change.
Flooded streets in Ocean Park, Maine during the 2007 Patriots Day storm. Photo by Bill Edwards.

A howling storm, tidal surge, downed power lines, beaches swept away, coastal residents evacuated.

Hurricane Sandy?

Yes, but it is also the story of the Patriots Day storm of 2007 along the southern Maine coast.

Experts say both storms are harbingers of yet more severe storms to come, made worse by the effects of a warming climate.

The Memorial Library in Ocean Park after the Patriots Day storm of April 2007 and the library on a dry day earlier this year. Top photo by Bill Edwards; Bottom photo by Kate McCormick.

The streets are dry and clear these days in Ocean Park, the 130-year-old enclave at the southern tip of Old Orchard Beach.

But on April 16 five years ago, they were submerged in up to four feet of seawater from a rising tide that rode across the village’s beach and wetlands and from a pounding rain, all of it trapped in the low-lying neighborhood.

“It was a harrowing experience,” recalled Dick Skillin , facilities and post office manager for the Ocean Park Association. “Water flooded the post office. The fire department had to come and take us out.”

Heavy rainfall, snowmelt and a high tide — higher than the one that accompanied the “Perfect Storm” in 1991 — created 30-foot waves along the southern Maine coastline, wreaking millions of dollars in damage.

The storm felled many of the area’s towering pines and power lines, took a giant bite out of the beach at nearby Camp Ellis and washed out portions of a dozen roads in Wells, according to press reports.

Most of the scientific community accepts that climate change is having world-wide effects; its direct impact on Maine has also been the subject of scientific research.

“Maine’s Climate Future,” a 2009 report from the Climate Change Institute of the University of Maine, stated: “For the 21st century, the models show a strong trend in Maine toward warmer conditions with more precipitation in all four seasons.”

The effects will likely include more rain rather than snow, more storms that damage beaches and coastal structures and other changes to Maine the way residents and visitors have known it for centuries.

The report concludes the rising temperatures in Maine threaten everything from tourism to farming to forestry and that the state needs to plan for those changes.

“Reducing human and ecosystem vulnerability to harm and increasing resilience in the face of change,” the report states, “is both an economic and moral imperative.”

As Old Orchard Beach planner Gary Lamb told the Scarborough Leader in 2010, “If you transpose a two-foot rise in sea level upon the area, every high tide would mirror the Patriot’s Day storm.”

How are state and local government responding?

Research by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting shows a patchwork of some communities taking action, while others are hanging back.

Issue takes a ‘back seat’

On the state level, the work of former Gov. John Baldacci’s administration to develop specific ways for the state to help cities and towns cope with climate change has been halted and results of the initial work removed from the state’s website by the administration of Gov. Paul LePage.

“We made a conscious decision that [climate change] would take a back seat,” said Darryl Brown, LePage’s first Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) commissioner, in an interview last spring. The DEP, its staff reduced by attrition, halted work on the climate change report in early 2011.

That unraveled the plan outlined by Gov. Baldacci, who told the scientists that their initial study would lead to a “framework” for state and local policies to cope with the effects of climate change.

That work began in 2007 when Baldacci commissioned the scientific study, which was completed in 2009.

The Legislature then passed a resolution ordering the DEP to lay out ways that Maine could adapt to its new climate.

The initial report was delivered to the Legislature in early 2010. It was the work of 75 stakeholders — ranging from Hannaford markets to the Maine Audubon Society to the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine and 13 state agencies. The document set out 60 recommendations.

Acknowledging that the state’s communities would have to do the major work in preparing for climate change, the report was designed to give towns and cities support by making available, for example, accurate climate data specific to Maine.

It also recommended that state agencies and municipalities work together to figure out how climate change will affect local buildings, roads and other structures — and how much it will all cost.

And, the report said, that sort of planning will make it easier for the state to work with federal agencies to get the dollars to pay for such projects.

Those concerns led Baldacci to sign a new resolution calling for a second study to make more specific recommendations, along with cost estimates. That report, which was to constitute Maine’s official climate change adaptation plan, was due to be presented in January of this year.

Instead, history happened.

In January 2011, Baldacci, a Democrat, ended his term in office and Republican LePage was sworn in. Republicans also gained majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

“We changed the focus dramatically,” recalled Brown, who was appointed LePage’s first DEP commissioner that January and who resigned the following April after Attorney General William Schneider ruled that Brown’s former business interests made him ineligible to hold the job.

The administration, Brown recalled, felt that the interests of Maine would be better served by making environmental regulations more friendly to business.

Instead of presenting an adaptation plan last January, the new DEP commissioner, Patricia Aho, gave the Legislature a two-page letter that referred to the 2010 report, adding, “the limited resources of all stakeholders should be targeted toward continued implementation [of the original report’s recommendations] rather than further document development.”

Aho acknowledged in an interview that the 2010 report was no longer on the DEP website.

“We had to make a choice because we had thousands upon thousands of documents and we needed to reduce our website,” she said, adding that the department decided to have only “updated information” available to conform to the state’s new web requirements.

The DEP, she noted, is still involved in initiatives related to climate change, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which seeks to reduce Maine’s emission of carbon dioxide; increasing industrial efficiency; and helping communities with culvert work.

But experts closely involved in the project see the state’s abandonment of the project as a loss.

Malcolm Burson, who served as the DEP’s Climate Adaptation Program Manager before his retirement in 2011, said that one of the strengths of the now-missing 2010 report was that “it represented the beginning of a planning process.”

For now the focus is on the work of towns and cities to deal with climate change, he said, but, for example, all of Maine’s 3,500 miles of coastline are facing the effects of sea level rise.

“It’s probably a lot more efficient” to have a higher level of government looking at the problems and helping to coordinate the response to them, said Burson, now with the Conservation Law Foundation as a public policy advisor.

Andy Whitman is a director at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences and took part in the climate report.

“The biggest loss is not so much that the 2010 report was permanently shelved,” he said, “but that its reasonable way forward was discontinued. The project created a network that represented the diverse needs of local communities and the business community. With a sense of shared responsibility, key stakeholders created practical and sensible strategies to sparingly improve existing programs.

“This network,” he said, “would have been a good springboard for dealing with the challenges of climate change in a no-nonsense way with broad political support. Instead, as it stands now, Maine’s communities and businesses will have to bear the burden of this lost opportunity.”

Sam Merrill, director of the New England Environmental Finance Center, located at the University of Southern Maine, said that the work that towns and cities must do “needs support and coordination from the state.”

Without a state plan, he said, towns and cities are struggling to do what they can. He added, “People are getting it because they’re getting wet.”

The local response

In Saco Bay, which includes Ocean Park, Old Orchard Beach and Biddeford, local and state officials in 2010 used a state grant to study the problem of rising sea levels.

Their “vulnerability” report issued in April 2011 came up with a stunning statistic: High tides combined with a rising sea level from a severe storm would cause $1 billion in damages and affect 2,400 structures.

The Saco Bay group came up with a “next steps” plan that includes building code improvements and better floodplain management.

The York County coastal towns that belong to the Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission have embarked on a number of projects.

They have studied the economic impact of losing parts of the beach in coming years, and worked with scientists to figure out ways to protect the coast and adjust their zoning and building codes to make sure buildings are safe from future flooding.

Peter Slovinsky, a coastal geologist who has worked with many of the towns, noted that Saco recently became the first town in Maine to change its flood plain map to take into account future sea level rise.

Residents who want to build or rebuild in certain areas of town will have to put their new structure a full two feet higher than the original map allowed.

Meanwhile, the Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission hired an engineering firm to study what could be done about the potential threat of rising sea levels to Ogunquit’s wastewater treatment plant.

The plant sits on low land near the shoreline. In fact, it is within the local coastal sand dune system and within a designated habitat for endangered species.

For years the plant and its pump stations have been flooded during major storms. The predictions of sea level rise mean bigger problems in the future.

The firm, Woodard and Curran, said the plant was at “high risk” of inundation over the next 20 to 30 years or sooner if flooding increases more rapidly. It recommended several actions that are now being studied.

Flooded streets in Ocean Park, Maine (above) during the 2007 Patriots Day storm and a similar scene from Oyster Bay, NY during Hurricane Sandy this year. Top photo by Bill Edwards. Bottom photo by Oliver Rich, used under creative commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

One example of how coastal towns are struggling to deal with the effects of climate change along with all the other issues facing them was evident at a meeting in Damariscotta in July.

Merrill, the environmental finance center chief, was invited by the midcoast town’s Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee to talk about climate change and its effects on coastal towns.

Merrill said he could understand that “the effects of climate change seem far off, that the benefits of action seem ambiguous to us now, that actions that could be taken are complex, and that doing nothing at all is a lot easier than forging ahead and making plans.”

But, he emphasized, the water will keep rising and storms will become fiercer.

Of the storms occurring in Maine over the past 100 years, six of the 10 worst have come during just the past 10 years, he said.

“We are seeing more and more impacts of change,” he told the town’s residents, including one who stood up to tell his own story.

Mike Herz lives along the Damariscotta River; his property includes a small cottage on the tidal river’s edge.

He said a recent high tide, accompanied by a storm surge, had left more than an inch of water in his cottage.

“I’ve known all along, in an abstract way, that this was coming,” he said. Now that it’s actually happened, he said he will be busy figuring out how to raise the cottage by at least two feet.

After the presentation, Damariscotta Selectman Ronn Orenstein was not totally convinced by Merrill’s evidence.

“Well, for me the jury is still out on global warming,” he said. “But we should at least study it.”

The town is not taking specific action solely on climate change, he said, but officials are mindful that as projects arise—a planned sidewalk extension along Bristol Road, for example — they will have to make decisions on whether or not to raise low-lying sections of the road and to install wider culverts to accommodate more water drainage. He’s also mindful of the potential for increased flooding of the municipal parking lot that extends from the rear of a row of downtown buildings to the edge of the Damariscotta River.

Town officials, Orenstein added, face competing priorities for town’s budget.

“All of this [action on climate change] ties into conversations about economic development, jobs, housing, taxes,” he said.

“Frankly, until priorities bubble up, they’re off the radar,” he said. “The people will decide to do something when they’ve gotten wet,” he said, quoting from Merrill’s talk.

Skeptical of state involvement with what he sees as town projects, Orenstein said he felt the state nevertheless could be helpful working with towns to obtain grants for planning.

Help for Damariscotta may, in fact, already be on the way.

The Lincoln County Regional Planning Commission is studying the potential impact of sea level rise on the county’s 450 miles of coastline, including Damariscotta’s, by identifying areas susceptible to flooding and allowing it to update plans for dealing with areas and infrastructure at risk.

The commission also intends to make the data from the study available to local emergency management agencies.

As for other towns, particularly those away from the coast, largely unthreatened by sea-level rise, the picture is even murkier.

Jackie Sartoris, of the Manomet Center, has surveyed  officials in 37 towns, most of them inland.

Her study, begun last November, was designed to explore whether the towns had thought about planning and development in ways that preserve natural systems.

She said most of the local officials she and her team spoke with were concerned primarily about economic development and jobs.

“I can say that not a single town,” Sartoris said, “was looking at climate change.”

Vermont has ‘Climate Cabinet’ preparing for climate change

In late August of 2011, a catastrophic storm hit Vermont. The tail-end of Hurricane Irene, the storm and its flooding caused three deaths, left a half-dozen communities isolated for a week and wiped out hundreds of miles of roadways.

Scientists linked the storm’s ferocity to climate change. But it didn’t take the deadly event to prompt action on the state level  — Gov. Peter Shumlin had already formed a “Climate Cabinet,” in May, 2011.

Shumlin has charged his climate cabinet with a range of tasks, including having the state partner with local governments so that “Vermont communities grow sustainably and are resilient to climate change impacts in the future.”

A second task is to come up with ways to “protect Vermonters, their property, the state’s economic well-being and the state’s natural resources” from the effects of a warming climate.

Disclaimer: Mike Herz, who is quoted in this story, was a donor to the Center in 2010.

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Kate McCormick

Kate McCormick retired to Newcastle after a long journalism career at New York Newsday, the Patriot Ledger and the Indianapolis Star.
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