LINCOLNVILLE, Maine — Often discussions about climate change are framed either in heated political arguments or in the future tense, as scientists share predictions about how much the sea level will rise and other problems that loom scarily on the horizon.
But Maine coastal communities are already struggling to cope with problems that experts tie to climate change, most acutely with the additional water that comes from storms that are both more frequent and more intense.
The extra inches of rainwater and snowmelt saturating the coast are overflowing culverts, sometimes causing road washouts and dangerous flooding. And that, municipal officials say, is an issue that must be fixed.
“Whether or not this is a human-related problem or a natural cycle or whatever, we don’t care,” Lincolnville Town Administrator David Kinney said this week. “What we care about is how to address the problem. We’ll leave the great debate, if it is a debate, to others.”
In a bid to find a solution, communities must first better understand the problem, according to Esperanza Stancioff, an associate extension professor at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Sea Grant.
She has spent years working as part of a research team from the University of Maine that is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative.
The researchers are seeking to figure out the impacts of climate change on coastal communities, and worked closely with people from Lincolnville and Ellsworth over 18 months to develop plans to deal with the overtapped culverts.
The communities — one large and one small — were selected as models to generate information that hopefully will have broader applications around the coast.
“Culverts are extremely important,” she said Thursday. “They are the conduit of water in these developed areas. Culverts are the backbone of infrastructure. They’re super important to communities. When they fail, it can be very expensive and disastrous for homeowners or for businesses, or for people traveling on that road. People have lost their lives.”
Stancioff said that in Lincolnville, the team worked with the community to learn about governance structure in order to find out how best to make decisions about culverts.
That included doing an inventory of the town’s culverts and other infrastructure that will help officials replace aging or too-small culverts with ones that are designed to handle the increasing amount of water.
In Ellsworth, a city with 96 square miles that services a population of 60,000 people, including the outlying communities, the researchers worked with city planner Michele Gagnon and her crew to create an updated stormwater plan. It was a true partnership, according to both Gagnon and Stancioff.
“Governance structure can streamline the process, or it can completely keep it from happening in an effective way,” Stancioff said. “There are so many regulations. You have no idea how complex the situation is until you start delving into it.”
She said that a community forum on the topic that recently was held in Ellsworth drew more than 60 people — far more than organizers anticipated.
“It is an issue that’s on people’s minds,” Stancioff said.
Gagnon said that the “winter from hell” Maine just experienced might have helped to pique interest about the subject of stormwater runoff and culverts — topics that she wouldn’t expect would pack a house.
She said that communities like hers have been using weather and climate data for planning purposes that dates to 1960. Those outdated figures show that weather events such as rainstorms that drop 5.4 inches of water at a time are only supposed to happen in Ellsworth one year out of 50.
Today, the probability is much higher than that, according to Stancioff, the amount of rain that falls in a 100-year event has increased on the Maine coast by as much as 35 percent.
“The reality is there’s more water coming down,” Gagnon said. “There’s more water in the winter. It pools, it ponds, it freezes. We saw it all this winter. I think we had so much water that people had enough. Seriously.”
She said that working with the scientists from Sustainability Solutions Initiative was “unbelievably helpful.”
“They got a really good taste of what it’s like to do work in the trenches, and they made us think of things we had not thought of,” Gagnon said. “They made us take notice and recognize issues. The funny thing, I never thought that stormwater was climate adaptation, to tell you the truth. When you think about climate adaptation and climate change, you think about global policy. I just thought, oh my God, we are having a lot more water.”
For more information about the research done by the University of Maine team, please visit: www. um aine.edu/news/blog/2014/05/16/umaine-research-cited-in-national-climate-assessment-report/