BLUE HILL — Press the play button on the online map on climatecentral.org and you too can watch as pixelated tentacles of blue creep farther and farther inland as the sea level rises: across Parker Point Road and Maple Lane, slowly eating into Main Street and up Pleasant, flooding across the town landing and the Blue Hill Fire Department, washing over the Seaside Cemetery. It’s a mesmerizing simulation tinged with hopelessness and resignation.
But it isn’t and we shouldn’t (be hopeless and resigned, that is).
“Change is going to be incremental,” said Beckett Slayton, a Bowdoin College senior and co-chair of a task force charged this summer with studying the predicted effects of sea level rise on Blue Hill and identifying possible solutions. “We are best served as a small community to be proactive thinking about these things and do all that we can to mitigate before we see some of these damaging effects.”
There’s no need to look much further than the town wharf during a king tide for evidence that seas are higher than they once were. And in the past few years they’ve risen faster and faster. “About half of the last century’s sea level rise in Maine has occurred since the early 1990s,” according to a draft report released by the Maine Climate Council on Nov. 9.
Just how much higher waters will rise is up for debate. After extensive research and dozens of interviews over the summer, the four task force volunteers, including Slayton and his co-chair Nellie Haldane, along with Randall Curtis and Jeff Milliken, recommended that Blue Hill “commit to manage for sea level rise of 1.1 to 1.8 feet by 2050 and 3.0 to 4.6 feet by 2100,” but that it also “prepare for significantly higher sea level rise scenarios including 3 feet by 2050 and 8.8 feet by 2100.”
Even the lower-end scenarios could have a dramatic impact. A 1.6-foot sea level rise, the Climate Action Plan notes, could submerge nearly 70 percent of the state’s sand dunes and cut the dry beach area in the state almost in half. Ecosystems, buildings, jobs, tourism and valuable fisheries are all at risk from warmer, higher water. Storm surge flooding could cost the state $17.5 billion in building damage over the next 30 years, according to the report, and some projections suggest the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine could decline 45 percent by 2050, reducing the state’s economic output by $1.3 billion. At least six of the state’s wastewater treatment plants, the report notes, “will be at risk of permanent inundation from sea level rise by 2050, unless action is taken.”
“The wastewater treatment plant was a very large concern,” said Slayton. “In terms of town infrastructure, that’s probably the piece that is most at risk right now.”
The treatment plant is less than a foot above the highest annual tide and already has issues with outflow as pressure builds during high tides. A storm surge and rising seas could create further problems.
“There is a lot of work to be done in order to protect some of our most vulnerable structures,” said Shawna Ambrose, town administrator and a member of the task force, in an email this week. King tides already flood low-lying roads, such as the causeway in South Blue Hill, Ambrose pointed out. The Seaside Cemetery is “in need of immediate intervention; more so than the buildings at this point.”
Yes, it will be an expensive, ongoing effort to prepare the town for rising seas, said Slayton. But it’s cheaper than doing nothing.
“In terms of cost, one-sixth of the cost can be prevented by taking mitigating measures versus trying to address a problem after it’s occurred,” said Slayton.
“In 30 years, the wastewater treatment plant is probably going to be inundated,” he continued, if nothing is done. The Blue Hill Fire Department and town landing at 42 Water St. are also under threat. Even Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital, across the street from the fire station, has already been affected by a flood “caused by an unusually high tide that caused the outflow of a culvert located behind the hospital to back up.”
So, what’s a town to do?
That depends on what its inhabitants are trying to protect. To protect roads, culverts can be enlarged and roadbeds raised, something Blue Hill Road Commissioner Bill Cousins is already doing, the report notes. Options such as riprap can stabilize the shoreline and help prevent erosion, as can planting native species on the soft ground inclined toward the water, known as a living shoreline. Breakwaters, locks and dams are other options.
“We don’t have the capital to implement all these suggestions right now,” said Slayton. But as the town makes routine changes to its infrastructure, it should take rising seas into account, and plan for them.
“Maybe it coincides with repairs that need to happen,” he said, to “make sure we don’t inefficiently allocate the money.” Plans should be flexible to allow for different scenarios, said Slayton. “Depending on the scenario, maybe some of these things don’t make total sense.” He paused. “Getting this into the stream of consciousness of Blue Hill — in my opinion, that’s the biggest value of a report like this.”
The volunteer task force, which worked from May through September, offered its thoughts on priorities for the town, as well as some funding possibilities and a few solutions. But there’s a lot more work to be done, said Slayton.
“If Blue Hill really wants to act on some of this stuff, they really need to hire an engineer to do a vulnerability assessment to figure out the costs.” A more permanent committee is needed, flood insurance policies must be reviewed and ordinances may need to be updated, the task force recommends.
State planners and funders also made clear, said Slayton, that the town needs to update its comprehensive plan, not a small undertaking in itself.
“It’s going to be really, really difficult for us to prove to funding sources, whether it be at the state level or nonprofit funding sources, that we’re committed to addressing this problem when we don’t even have a comprehensive plan in place.”
“The state,” Slayton continued, “is going to start to devote a lot of money to addressing climate change and sea level rise in small communities. It’s going to get really competitive. We have to make sure we’re doing everything we can to get Blue Hill in the best position.”
To view a copy of the report, visit townofbluehillmaine.org.