BELFAST — Maine coastal communities trying to stay ahead of climate change are running up against a more immediate challenge: how to pay for the costly projects needed to protect themselves from rising seas and stronger storms.

On Friday, dozens of municipal and state officials as well as regional planners gathered in Belfast to discuss funding options for “climate resiliency” projects at a time when many federal programs are geared toward disaster clean-up, not preparation.

Two of the key messages from the “Shoreup Maine” conference: innovate and collaborate.

“By working together, across municipalities and across organizations, we can leverage more resources and more money than we can on our own,” said Sam Belknap, community development officer and sea level rise project leader for the Island Institute, one of the sponsors of the conference.

Coastal communities and islands already are experiencing the impacts from a changing climate. Commercial fishermen are seeing fish populations shift or species change as the waters of the Gulf of Maine warm. And many towns are experiencing more frequent flooding in low-lying areas, which will only worsen as sea levels rise and more severe storm surges pound the coast.

Many Maine communities are already taking steps – often at the planning level – to adapt to the changing climate. Other communities, such as Portland and South Portland, are collaborating on planning and climate mitigation measures as they pledge to do their part to reduce the impacts of climate change.

In Damariscotta, for instance, local officials have been working with the Lincoln County Planning Commission, the Island Institute and engineering firms to come up with plans for better protecting a historic downtown that is surrounded by water on three sides.

The parking lot behind Main Street – which was built with fill from the Route 1 bypass constructed in the 1950s – already floods during severe storms and high tides known as King Tides. A key part of the town’s resiliency plan is to build a new sea wall along the harbor front and other changes.

“We started the conversation several years ago and we are ready,” Damariscotta Town Manager Matt Lutkus said.

But after “going like gangbusters” to put plans in place, the momentum has slowed because the town has hit “funding snags” for projects expected to cost $1.4 million to $2 million, Lutkus said.

Farther up the coast, South Thomaston Town Administrator Owen Casas said he was able to obtain a roughly $330,000 grant from the Northern Border Regional Commission for a project in an area that periodically floods. But that still leaves about $100,000 that must come from a local share.

Casas described the typical “chicken and the egg” situation where towns need engineering studies to qualify for grant money, but they also need money to pay the engineers. He also said some state programs will not allow him to pay for expenses with town reserve accounts and then use grants to later repay those expenses.

Globally, sea levels rose 3 inches between 1993 and 2017 and continue to rise at a rate of roughly one-eighth of an inch annually as glaciers melt and warming seawater expands thermally, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That is roughly double the rate for much of the 20th century, and a 2012 NOAA study predicted that seas will rise at least 8 inches and as much as 6.6 feet by 2100.

Charles Colgan, a former Maine state economist and professor of public policy at the University of Southern Maine, told attendees that communities will have to “pull together money from many different sources” to pay for climate adaptation projects. But he said it is “a multi-decadal process.”

“You don’t have to find all of the money now, and you don’t have to do everything now,” said Colgan, who is now director of research for the Center for the Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in California. “Don’t do everything now because you don’t know how bad it is going to be. But do it sooner rather than later, and make sure you plan for later.”

Colgan said everyone is “rummaging around under the couch cushions” for public funds, but it will take both taxpayer and private money. The fastest innovation is occurring in the private sector, where, in places like Europe, private bonds are being sold to help pay for coastal resiliency projects.

In the United States, Congress has pulled back from writing “blank checks” to disaster recovery because of the enormous price tag from recent hurricanes and severe storms. At the same time, the federal flood insurance program is struggling financially. But Colgan said there are options such as pre-disaster insurance and “catastrophe bonds” sold to investors willing to assume the risk through higher potential returns if the shorter-term bonds are never cashed.

“It’s a great idea, but the problem is they have to be very big bonds in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars,” Colgan said. “No community in Maine can do a catastrophe bond. Maine, as a whole, could.”

Friday’s conference was held one day after Gov. Janet Mills convened the first meeting of the Maine Climate Council. The nearly 40-member council is charged with recommending strategies for meeting ambitious new state goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and expanding renewable energy generation.

That represents a dramatic policy shift from the administration of former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican who was a vocal skeptic of human contributions to the changing climate.

Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note acknowledged that his agency doesn’t even have a climate resiliency program – at least not yet.

While the DOT does not have a specific resiliency program, it offers infrastructure grant programs to communities that could be used to help with resiliency projects, he said. He also predicted that the appetite for state borrowing via bonds to finance different types of projects could increase as the Maine Climate Council delves into the issue.

“I think things are changing and there are opportunities,” Van Note said.

Friday’s conference, held at the United Farmers Market of Maine, was hosted by the Island Institute, Maine Coastal Program, the New England Environmental Finance Center, Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, and Resilience Works, LLC.

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