As the Maine town with the longest coastline, Harpswell is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise. But the town government is up to the job, with its dedicated, hard-working Conservation Commission studying the effects of climate change on town roads and wetlands since 2010. In 2015, together with the MidCoast Council of Governments, the commission mapped areas of Harpswell that could be flooded with a rise in sea level of one to six feet. These spots included 16 public roads that could be overtopped with water at a rise of six feet. Thirteen of these roads could be overtopped at a 3-foot sea-level rise, and five at only a 1-foot rise. In this last group is Basin Point Road, a road that the Conservation Commission chose last spring to study under a Coastal Community Planning Grant to better understand the implications of sea-level rise on town infrastructure.

Basin Point Road was a good choice, providing the only land access to the Dolphin Marina and Restaurant, with more than 90 employees and serving some 85,000 people in 2016. Add to this daily traffic, customers of several other firms plus residents of about 115 homes, and you can see it’s a busy road vital to commuters and customers. The area inland of the road at its lowest point belongs to Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, a partner in the grant project. And that part of the road is undeveloped, making potential road reconstruction less disturbing.

After nine months of study with the help of Gorrill Palmer, Harpswell’s contract engineers, the Conservation Commission held a public workshop this past fall on the study’s findings. Project engineer Will Haskell laid out three possible responses the Town can take to rising sea-levels and increased flooding, as follows:

1. Do nothing, and see what happens. This choice would require additional annual maintenance costs to repair damage from flooding and erosion as sea levels rise. Even before water overtops the road, the sub-base of the roadbed can become saturated and damaged with each high tide cycle.

2. Replace the present culvert with a larger one and raise the road-bed to stay dry at a sea-level rise of 3.3 feet.

3. Replace the present culvert with an even larger one and raise the road-bed to stay dry at a sea-level rise of 6 feet.


Alternatives 2 and 3 would protect the roadbed from increased storm surge and higher tidal flows and – with larger culverts – improve aquatic organism passage and habitat beneath the road. The size and elevation of the replacement culvert could change the ecology of the upstream habitat and the extent of the wetland area, so planning must accommodate the needs of the location and the effect on property owners.

The Basin Point Road is a sobering example of what coastal towns face in the near future to mitigate climate change. hat there are twelve more public roads that would be impacted by a 3.3-foot sea rise means there will be considerable cost to the town over the next twenty years. However, in facing the challenges of rising sea-level head-on, early, and publicly, Harpswell’s Conservation Commission is pioneering ways for coastal communities to monitor and mitigate the disruption of climate change.

Harpswell’s selectboard recently broadened that role by endorsing a national policy to reduce carbon emissions. It’s a carbon fee and dividend policy advocated by the national volunteer group Citizens Climate Lobby and The Climate Leadership Council, an international research and advocacy organization. A related version of this policy is a new bill co-sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, to be taken up in the 2019 session.

The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act levies a steadily increasing fee ($15 per metric ton) on potential carbon dioxide pollution, increasing by $10/ton each succeeding year; and returns 100 percent of the proceeds to American households. There is also a border adjustment for the carbon content of both imports and exports to level the playing field with countries without comparable carbon pricing systems.

Putting a fee on carbon raises the price of fossil fuels high enough to discourage their consumption and replace them with renewable energy instead. Economists are nearly unanimous that a carbon tax is the most efficient and effective way to reduce carbon emissions.

This bill is especially timely in light of the challenges faced by coastal communities like Harpswell. Readers can help by contacting our members of Congress to support passage of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act.

Mary Lee Fowler is a resident of Harpswell, and a member of the Bath/Brunswick chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby.

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