Protecting Main Street from climate impacts

Bangor Daily News Editorial Board
Posted 2020-10-14

As the evidence and costly impacts of climate change mount, the need to view climate action as an economic imperative — not just an environmental one — is increasingly clear.

By working to guard its downtown from rising tides and flooding, with the help of a multi-million dollar federal grant, the town of Damariscotta is confronting an increasingly common dilemma for Maine’s coastal communities: What happens when their greatest resource, in this case the Damariscotta River, becomes a threat.

“We need to do something to protect our downtown buildings,” Damariscotta Town Manager Matt Lutkus told the BDN earlier this month. He said that during storm surges and exceptionally high tides, “the water comes up through the storm drains.”

In February, the Maine Climate Council Scientific and Technical subcommittee released a scientific assessment on climate change and its effects in Maine. According to the subcommittee, “it is likely that sea level in Maine will rise between 3 and 5 feet by the year 2100.”

This and other scientific projections can understandably feel academic and theoretical. But the resulting impacts on main streets across the state can be very real.

“This is definitely not a one-size-fits-all issue, both in terms of how communities are being impacted, and also how communities are responding. There are 120 coastal communities along the coast of Maine and not two of those communities have exactly the same issues,” Susie Arnold, a marine scientist at the Island Institute, said at a BDN event on coastal resilience and sea level rise in August.

That event was the first in a series of four online conversations the BDN has been convening to discuss the impacts of climate change in Maine. The next is Thursday.

“It may be that their critical infrastructure, like their wastewater treatment plant, is already being inundated at king tides. Maybe their entire downtown is being impacted, like Vinalhaven and Damariscotta,” Arnold continued. “Or maybe their freshwater aquifer, their only source of fresh drinking water, like Monhegan, is vulnerable to being impacted with a few feet of sea level rise, Or maybe they’re sitting pretty — they think they’re high up — but low and behold, that access road that brings them to their business or their home is already being inundated during high tides and is very vulnerable to being inundated more frequently with sea level rise.”

In Damariscotta, Lutkus emphasized that towns already dealing with the impacts of climate change can’t choose between adapting to the specific changes in their communities or taking action to reduce emissions and address climate change overall. “We have to do both,” he said. That’s an important point for municipalities, and one that translates to the business community as well.

Bill Mook, the founder of Mook Sea Farm on the Damariscotta River in Walpole, said something similar during the BDN’s recent climate event focusing on the warming Gulf of Maine.

“When I look at all this stuff, I don’t really separate, in many cases, adaptation from mitigation. One of the things I’m always looking for is, how can I reduce carbon emissions but also reduce my operating costs,” Mook said. “And there are many things that can be done to do that. I don’t think it’s one thing or the other.”

As Mook emphasized, climate action can also make sense for a business’ bottom line. And as the efforts in Damariscotta reflect, communities are increasingly realizing that the costs of inaction can be greater than the costs of assessing and acting on climate change.

On Thursday, the BDN is convening its third remote climate conversation with a focus on how shorter and milder winters are impacting the outdoor industry. The event is free and open to the public, and anyone interested in joining can register online.

Whether it’s in response to warming winters or rising seas, understanding and acting on the impacts of climate change is not just about protecting the environment, but about preserving liveloods — for individuals, for businesses and for entire communities.