OLD ORCHARD BEACH, Maine — Maine’s sand beaches bring about $500 million of new money into the state each year and support some 8,000 jobs, but the beach economy could be put in jeopardy because of the rising sea level.
As oceans continue to rise, coastal storms are likely to become more violent and more prevalent, scientists say. When those violent storms strike the Maine coast, they can wipe away beaches, wipe out businesses and put people out of work.
The value of Maine beaches and the impact of the rising sea level are the focus of the 2009 Maine Beaches Conference next Friday at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland. The conference comes on the heels of the July Fourth weekend, the unofficial start of Maine’s beach-going season.
Maine has hundreds of miles of rocky coast but only 40 miles of sand beaches, mostly between Cape Elizabeth and Kittery. And it’s important to develop public policies to protect those beaches into the future, said Pete Slovinsky of the Maine Geological Survey.
“One of the reasons our beach communities do so well economically and are such an economic cash cow for the state is that they have beaches,” he said.
Though they comprise a small amount of coastline, Maine’s beaches bring a disproportionate amount of tourism dollars into the economy. Some economists say sand beaches are possibly as big an economic engine to Maine as the rest of the state’s coast combined.
The southern Maine coast is the state’s most frequently visited region — 45 percent of tourists visit the area while in the state, according to a 2006 study.
All those tourists create jobs and drive up retail sales, said Maine State Economist Michael LeVert. They also drive up property values in beachside communities. In York County beach towns, land that is within walking distance of the beaches makes up 5 percent of the acreage in those towns, LeVert said. But that same land makes up 34 percent of the valuation, he said.
Charles Colgan of the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine co-authored a study last fall that used coastal York County as a case study looking at how continued sea level rise and coastal storm damage would affect businesses and employment in those beachside towns.
The dangers of coastal storms were brought to light two years ago when the Patriot’s Day storm of 2007 slammed into Maine, leaving 125,000 homes and businesses in the dark and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage.
The Patriot’s Day storm was “an unusual storm by historical standards,” Colgan said. “It will become the norm — in fact, it will become mild, by standards 30 to 50 years from now based on sea level rise.”
The sea level in Maine was rising at a rate of about half a millimeter a year — or roughly an inch every 50 years — from 3,000 years ago until Colonial times.
But the sea level rise accelerated to about nine-tenths of a millimeter a year for most of the 20th century and is believed to now be rising even faster — possibly more than 3 millimeters a year, or roughly an inch a decade.
Surprisingly, nobody knows for sure how many people visit Maine’s beaches. And nobody has attempted to put a monetary value on them.
While it’s clear the beaches bring value in the form of tourist dollars, jobs and enhanced property assessments, perhaps the greatest value is one that can’t be measured in dollars and cents, said Colgan, a former state economist.
“The biggest value may be the value of a day at the beach, even when we don’t pay for it,” Colgan said.