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Maine communities brace for cost of rising sea levels

Scientists predict high tides will rise 18 inches or more in 20 to 30 years

VINALHAVEN, Maine — Sailing into the harbor on the Vinalhaven ferry, visitors get a quick reminder that the island is home to one of the biggest lobster fleets in Maine. Carvers Harbor appears full of boats even when many are out fishing.

The core of the town — fishing wharves, the ferry terminal, gas pumps, stores, the fire department, even a motel — stretches out right beside the harbor.

It means the risk, or threat, from rising sea levels is very real in this town.

Some of the early impacts of rising sea levels are already being seen here and elsewhere, and climate scientists expect that warming ocean waters will continue to rise, with predictions of high tides going a foot-and-a-half higher, or even more, in the next 20 to 30 years.

Standing on the dock at the Vinalhaven Fisherman’s Co Op, manager Millie Martin said the water levels seem higher and closer to the top of the docks than she remembers from years ago.

“We probably have 4-foot clearance at high tide now and with storm surges, it’s much less,” she said. “We have to make sure everything is cleared off in case the surge comes in.”

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The town has seen high tide floods multiple times in recent years, and Vinalhaven Town Manager Andy Dorr says they have installed tide gauges to keep track.

“One is a state-aid road about a mile out of town and on an 11-foot tide it very well could be wet and underwater,” he said. “The gauge there we have seen as much as 2 feet of water on that road.”

Dorr says the town has started building things higher when it has the chance. A recent bridge replacement put the bridge 2 feet higher than it had been. The town is planning to rebuild sidewalks and sewers in the downtown area next year, and Dorr says making the village more resistant to higher tides will definitely be part of it.

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Farther south on the coast, the town of Damariscotta is also taking action. Starting next year, the town plans to rebuild a parking lot beside the river and will add a sea wall to prevent the river from flooding in during extra high tides.

“The boat ramp, the top of the boat ramp is at 8 feet [of tide]. The storm of record was 10 feet,” said town manager Matt Lutkus.

With tides predicted to be significantly higher than they are now, the town will build the sea wall 5 feet above the current parking lot level. That height was determined by the federal agency that is providing much of the money for the project.

“The idea is not to protect the parking lot, because tides can come and go with no damage to the lot,” Lutkus said. “The idea is to protect the buildings adjacent to the parking lot.”

Addressing rising sea levels is a key portion of Gov. Janet Mills’ climate change plan. But reinforcing coastal infrastructure will be expensive for the communities and for state government while protecting individual properties will be costly for home and business owners.

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That includes the Vinalhaven Fisherman’s Co Op, Martin says they need to rebuild the whole facility and raise the docks, the building, and the fuel tanks out of harm’s way.

“What are they saying, 16 years, 6 inches?” she said. “Which I expect is more like 6 to 10 inches.”

The cost will be high, but the co-op has to be on the water, and rising sea levels will apparently leave them little choice.

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