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Town plans construction to fight rising sea levels

The town of Damariscotta plans to replace storm drains with one-way valves so water will only flow out, not in.

DAMARISCOTTA, Maine — Matt Lutkus looks across Damariscotta’s big riverfront parking lot and sees both a problem and a solution.

He is the manager of the popular tourist town and said the basic problem is that the parking lot is flooding more often, a result in part, of rising sea levels caused by climate change. He said when astronomical high tides combine with storms—and sometimes when they don’t—the Damariscotta River pushes up through old storm drains and floods the parking lot. Those floodwaters can get high enough to threaten businesses, which sometimes have to use sandbags to keep the river out.

The solution? The town plans to replace those storm drains with one-way valves so water will only flow out, not in. 

“The idea is not to protect the parking lot, because tides can come and go. The idea is to protect the buildings adjacent to the lot,” Lutkus said.

But there is another, larger problem. The river level is expected to gradually rise, along with sea levels on the entire Maine coast. More than 40 years ago, a severe storm pushed the river right over the banks of the parking lot, and Lutkus said rising sea levels mean the risk of more serious flooding will steadily increase as climate change worsens.

That threat requires a larger and more complicated solution.

Damariscotta is now planning to build a three-foot high seawall around the parking lot, with gates that can be blocked off at the boat ramp and what will be two pedestrian entrances.

“It protects from every flood we’ve ever had here, but it doesn’t block the view, and there are folks, especially older folks (who) like to pull up in their cars and view our beautiful harbor.”

The original plan called for simply raising the parking lot itself, but the manager said engineering studies showed the current lot, which was built over tidal mudflats more than 60 years ago, can take the added weight of all that material.

Then they initially looked at a five-foot-high seawall, but that ran into lots of opposition because it would have blocked the view of the river.

The current plan seems to have gained a lot of local support.

“I think for the most part everybody understands it’s a long-term investment, and to keep a viable downtown we have to make investments down here,” said auto mechanic Daryl Fraser, who is also chairman of the town select board.

“I’ve been working in downtown for 25 years, and I’ve seen the kayaks coming through the parking lot when it floods, so yes it's something that needs to be done.”

Susan Murphy agrees. She bought a prominent downtown building two years ago, and now runs the Cupacity restaurant and coffee shop, which backs up to the parking lot.

Murphy said she, too, has seen flooding and sandbags, even in the short time she’s been open.

“I think we have to do something about it, I really do, and that’s why I think the project is a very good idea.”

Manager Lutkus said the project is estimated to cost $4.4 million, most of that money coming from federal grants and private donations. They have the funds in hand and hope to start construction next spring.

The town is just finishing building a long-awaited public restroom building, located in the lowest part of the parking lot. That new building sits high above the ground on a tall concrete foundation. The height, said Lutkus, was a code requirement, to avoid the risk of flooding.




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