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Harpswell Addresses Climate Resiliency

By Patti Neuhof

Today, barely a news cycle passes without a story tied to the impact and challenges communities across the country face as a result of climate change. Some of these impacts are immediately clear and heartbreaking, like the destruction attributed to the wildfires in the West or the flooding and devastation caused by the increase of hurricanes in the Atlantic. Closer to home, The Gulf of Maine, which sits at the intersection of the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream, is warming faster than 99 percent of all ocean waters. While some effects are less acute or extreme, they all entreat communities to develop strategies concentrated on understanding and managing the potential impacts of climate change for the repercussions are not only felt elsewhere, but assuredly in our own backyard.

With 216 miles of shoreline, where most homes are within a half mile of the water, the Harpswell Conservation Commission in 2010 wisely began to lay the foundation, planning and partnerships required to develop a comprehensive response to the anticipated impacts of climate events. Given the potential effects of sea level rise on roads and marshes, it was clear that plans to mitigate, adapt and fund efforts to address these impacts were critical.

According to Mary Ann Nahf, a member of the Conservation Commission, early research identified that coastal flooding, associated with storms and storm surge, particularly at monthly king tides, posed the most acute risk to the road infrastructure of Harpswell.

Mapping efforts by the Commission identified seven roads — both public and private — that would be impacted by a mere one foot of sea level rise (see photos of some of these roads below), while sixteen public roads would be affected by six feet of rise. In an effort to understand options and expenses associated with road reconstruction and elevation, the Town conducted a more detailed study of Basin Point Road and its adjacent wetland on Curtis Farm Preserve in partnership with Harpswell Heritage Land Trust and funded by a Maine Coastal Grant. With the understanding provided by this study, the Commission determined that a broader, more holistic look at rising tides and the impact on the entire community infrastructure was warranted.

Concurrently, the Commission conducted workshops to educate community members and road associations, given that nearly 60 percent of the roads in Harpswell are private. The workshops addressed the anticipated impacts of sea level rise, the nuts and bolts of Maine’s Road Association statutes, and concepts for effectively budgeting to address ongoing and future road maintenance. Consistent with this effort, another webinar is being planned for this summer.
Details and registration information will be posted here when available: Harpswell Climate Resilience.

In addition, in 2019, the Town received an Island Institute Shore-Up Grant to do a comprehensive vulnerability assessment of the potential impacts from sea level rise and storm surge on all aspects of the community infrastructure. The Climate Resilience Task Force was created and is made up of town staff, town committee members and community representatives, along with interested residents to ensure a broad perspective.

The Task Force used the “Maine Flood Resilience Checklist” prepared by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to guide their efforts in assessing the impacts on the:

  • Critical Infrastructure & Facilities
  • Town Landings, Intertidal Area & Shellfish Harvesting, Harbors and Waterfronts, Facilities, Roads
  • Natural Environment
  • Social & Economic Community

With affected areas identified, the Task Force realized a designated group would be needed to complete the work suggested in the vulnerability report and requested the Selectmen to establish a Climate Resilience Implementation Task Force. This team would dig deeper and carry out recommended action items. Like any large, complicated effort, there is a need to drill down and acquire more targeted data before a comprehensive strategy for mitigation and adaptation can be advanced, allowing for informed budgetary planning.

So, the work continues and while there is still much to understand and address, ignoring climate change is simply not an option. Our local Climate Resilience Implementation Task Force, along with its strategic partners, are providing the regional and local leadership, along with the requisite site-specific knowledge, that will establish a dynamic and effective resiliency path forward for our community.

For those interested in more detailed information, reports and maps can be found on the Town’s website.

For those with questions or an interest in getting involved in climate resilience efforts, you can email the Conservation Commission at: Conservation@town.harpswell.me.us.