A king tide floods the boat launch and causeway at Lookout Point near midday on Jan. 3. (TOM ALLEN PHOTO)
As global leaders negotiate commitments to reduce emissions around the world, a small group of Harpswell residents gathers in the town office to address climate change at the local level.
Rather than temperature targets and aid to developing nations, the Harpswell Climate Resilience Implementation Task Force focuses much of its attention on how to identify and protect vulnerable infrastructure. How can the town shore up Basin Point Road to ensure it remains passable as sea levels rise? How can it “future-proof” town landings at Garrison Cove and Lookout Point to maintain public access to the water? How can it advise private road associations as they grapple with their own vulnerabilities?
The task force answers these questions by examining data, such as engineering reports on Basin Point Road and Lookout Point town landing. It gathers information firsthand, as members fan out to photograph trouble spots during “king tides” and storms.
The task force’s mission statement says it will determine the impact of 1-2 feet of rising tides and storm surge through 2050 on the town’s “critical infrastructure and developable land,” and will compile data that the town can use in budget and ordinance development.
The Board of Selectmen created the task force in December 2020, as an outgrowth of a previous task force. But its roots go back earlier.
“I think you have to go back to 2015,” said Mary Ann Nahf, the Bailey Islander who chairs the task force and the older Harpswell Conservation Commission. Back then, the Conservation Commission was “trying to get people to even think about climate change.”
The commission focused on roads. “To be honest, I thought that would be something that would get people’s attention,” Nahf said, “and it did.”
The state and town maintain the major roads, but 63% of Harpswell’s roads — 96.7 miles — are private. Families and road associations grapple with the same threats as the state and the town, without the same resources.
The need to raise a road or replace a culvert can be “a huge expense for a small group of people,” task force member Deirdre Strachan said. The task force wants to make road associations aware of the threats, as well as their options to manage those threats.
In 2019, the select board created a task force to assess impacts from rising tides and storm surge on community infrastructure. A key recommendation from the group was to create the current task force and continue the work.
“We realized we just did not have enough information fleshed out to give any type of good guidance to the selectmen, and that’s kind of what prompted us to move forward,” Nahf said. “They were looking for some ways to move forward and we weren’t at that position.”
Town leaders want numbers and recommendations. “We have a lot of homework to do yet,” Strachan said.
The figures the town does have can be “frightening” to consider, Strachan said.
The 2018 report on Basin Point focuses on the road’s most vulnerable point, a section about 2.5 feet above the highest annual tide where an 18-inch plastic culvert runs between Basin Cove and a pond in the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s Curtis Farm Preserve.
The 85-page report says raising the road and replacing the pipe with a concrete box culvert, 14 feet wide by 10 feet high, would accommodate 3.3 feet of sea level rise and cost $691,000 in 2018 dollars. The project would transform the pond into a salt marsh, as the box culvert would allow the tide to flow in and out without impediment.
The Basin Point study “helped us understand the huge potential costs for the town, long term, of dealing with the roads,” Strachan said.
As the study points out, a 3.3-foot rise in sea level would impact 12 other public roads in Harpswell. “While the cost of each road improvement is site-specific, the potential cost to the Town becomes very large even when considered over decades,” the report states.
The Maine Climate Council has recommended that the state plan for 1.5 feet of sea level rise by 2050 and 4 feet by 2100.
Town data shows that 1 foot of sea level rise would affect five public roads and two private roads; 2 feet would affect eight public roads and five private roads; and 3.3 feet would affect 13 public roads and 12 private roads. Some of the most vulnerable roads already flood during storms.
The task force has developed criteria to prioritize the roads. The criteria include the number of homes and businesses beyond the vulnerable point, road condition and traffic volume, and whether the road provides access to a public landing or wharf.
Among the roads where 1 foot of sea level rise would cause problems is Lookout Point Road, including the boat ramp and causeway popular with clammers and sunset watchers alike.
A 2020 assessment of Lookout Point recommended a series of steps to protect the causeway and parking area at a cost of $172,000.
The assessment recommends that the town raise the elevation of the causeway; add stone riprap on either side to protect it against storm damage; and rebuild the boat ramp, replacing its asphalt surface with more resilient concrete planks.
If the sea level rises 3 feet, these changes would reduce the risk of flooding at the causeway from 57 hours per month to less than one hour per month.
A just-approved study will examine the vulnerability of the Garrison Cove town landing and recommend upgrades to protect it, much like the Lookout Point assessment.
While skepticism about climate change often derails or slows action at the federal level, such has not been the case in Harpswell.
“We never got much pushback from people saying there isn’t such a thing,” Nahf said.
On the contrary, residents have welcomed the task force’s educational efforts. The task force had “very positive responses” to a series of seminars for road associations.
This year, the task force plans to hold workshops on well water and how to protect it. Strachan sees groundwater and private roads as the areas where “people already feel the impact of climate change the most.”
The risk to Harpswell’s wells is not yet clear.
“Our ideal is to know, what can the town of Harpswell support in the way of drinking water and what are the implications for zoning and all of those things?” Strachan said.
“I think that that’s caught people’s attention now,” task force member Nancy West said. “We can’t be squandering our water.”
State Rep. Jay McCreight, of Harpswell, said that she is fielding questions about groundwater in her role as a legislator. “As we see more and more development, are the wells safe?” she said.
“That’s the big unknown,” task force member Ken Oehmig added.
In addition to the effects of development, a future study might examine the risk from saltwater intrusion. West said the group learned from a state database that two replacement wells were drilled in Harpswell last year because water from the old wells had become salty.
While Harpswell may have a head start on climate resilience in comparison to many municipalities, members of the task force say their work is just beginning.
“We’re going to be planning for decades, not for months,” West said.
On Jan. 13, Nahf presented the task force’s 2021 report to the Board of Selectmen and pitched the idea of upgrading the task force to a permanent “sustainability committee” with a broader mission. The members of the task force are “anxious to continue” their work, Nahf said.
The select board appeared receptive to the idea.
“I just want to say, I think what you’ve done so far is fabulous,” Selectman Jane Covey said. “You, the task force, have done a great job and a great service to the town.”
A grant from the Broad Reach Fund supports the Harpswell Anchor’s reporting on climate change.