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FORT KENT, Maine – For communities along the state’s rivers and lakes, spring means rising water levels and flood watches as the snowpack and ice melt.
Along the St. John River in and west of Fort Kent, there is another factor that could contribute to how the river ice behaves once it starts breaking up and moving in a few weeks.
The three concrete piers supporting the new international bridge connecting Maine to New Brunswick do not line up with the two piers of the old bridge right next to it. The five piers have added obstacles and created short channels around and through which any ice must pass, which increases the possibility of ice jams and flooding.
“Any obstacle in the river creates a concern,” Don Guimond, Fort Kent town manager, said. “This has been a concern even before we started construction [and] the idea was to attempt to minimize the spring seasons with two bridges in the water.”
Initially, Guimond said, the hope was the old bridge would be standing next to the new structure for just one spring. The new bridge is still under construction and the old bridge is still in use.
“But now we are in our second season,” he said. “So yeah, it is a concern.”
The construction did not cause any problems last spring when optimum melting conditions did not create serious ice jams or flooding, according to Guimond.
Other than keeping an eye on the ice as it begins to melt and move, there is not much else that can be done, Guimond said.
“To my knowledge there are no mitigation efforts,” he said. “Once the ice begins to move it has to go through the bridge [piers] and there is not a whole lot you can do.”
Construction on the $11 million new bridge began in 2012 as a cooperative project between the Maine and New Brunswick Departments of Transportation.
The new 754-foot concrete bridge is nearly 25 feet wider than the existing 20-foot-wide, 730-foot steel truss-style bridge and is slated for completion by the end of this summer. At that point the old bridge is scheduled for demolition.
New Brunswick’s DOT is the lead agency on the border crossing infrastructure project.
On Monday, Judy Cole, director of communications for New Brunswick DOT, said the piers are not a huge concern for her agency with regard to any impact on ice jams or flooding, not that people should be complacent this spring.
“With all the snow there is this year anybody living along the river should be concerned,” Cole said. “A few pylons are not going to make a difference.”
Over on the Maine side, DOT officials are keeping an eye on the bridges, just in case.
“We have our arms around it,” Ted Talbot, Maine DOT spokesman, said Tuesday. “We knew from the very beginning the pilings were not going to line up [and] there is an emergency action plan in place.”
That plan, the product of municipal, state and federal participation, is aimed more at reacting to a breach in the levee that protects all of the west Fort Kent business district from the St. John River, Talbot said.
“But it is also applicable to the scenario of a serious ice jam.” he said.
Darren Woods, Aroostook emergency management director, will meet with Fort Kent officials on Wednesday to discuss the upcoming flood season.
So far, Woods said Tuesday, he is not seeing anything to suggest major flooding is on the way.
“We are not overly concerned now because the ice on the river is within normal range,” he said. “But that could change and we do recognize those extra [bridge] support structures that could help hold that ice back.”
The emergency plan, Woods said, centers on making sure those who could be affected by any flooding are taken to safety in addition to establishing a system for keeping lines of communication open.
“The emergency operation plan directs how we would handle any evacuations,” Woods said. “Sometimes it is impossible to stop Mother Nature so the best bet is move people out of harm’s way.”
In 2008, more than 600 Fort Kent residents were evacuated from the East Main Street area after a record winter snowfall was followed by record spring rains and created flooding conditions in which the St. John and Fish rivers overflowed their banks and combined to form one moving body of water.
With the variability of weather, Woods said, it is hard to compare 2008 with the current conditions.
“We had approximately 70 inches more snow on the ground through the entire [2007-2008] season,” he said. “But this year on March 25 we have more snow on the ground than we have had on any March 25 in the last 50 years of record keeping.”
According to the most recent report released by the National Weather Service’s office in Caribou, the ice in the St. John River is an average of 2 feet thick and up to 3 feet in some locations.
In that same report, the weather service noted the snow pack in northern Maine is between 30 and 45 inches with above-normal water content.
“The flooding in 2008 was after a lot of snow, but also a lot of rain,” Lynette Miller, Maine Emergency Management Agency spokesperson, said in an email on Tuesday. “Ice jam flooding is always a particular concern because it can’t be forecast [and] monitoring ice conditions closely, especially where there are known jams in place, is the only course of action.”
Any increased ice jam potential around the bridges in Fort Kent is more of a DOT issue, Miller said, adding, “there is always a possibility of ice hanging up or causing damage to any infrastructure in any river.”
Miller and Woods agree the best-case scenario for spring is a gradual snow and ice melt with little rain.
“There is always potential for flooding [and] we are always concerned and always vigilant,” Woods said. “The scenario we don’t want is rapid, sustained warm-ups and rain [and] in the short term, anyway, it does not appear that will happen.”
All that can be done, Talbot said, is watch, wait and prepare for any eventuality.
“It’s tough to forecast how things will go with the new bridge,” he said. “We have to be prepared for a bunch of scenarios from mild to extreme.”