When Kathleen Billings was a kid, she could count on high tide falling several feet short of topping the causeway between Deer and Little Deer islands.
Today, high tide goes almost level with the road and, with heavy storms or especially strong winds, salt water covers at least some portion of the road, said the 56-year-old Billings, who has been Stonington’s town manager since 2007.
“When you go over it, you can really notice a lot more water that is level with your car. It makes you look like you are driving across the tide,” Billings said Friday. “You don’t worry about it when it’s at low tide, but when the water looks like it’s right alongside you, it’s a different story.”
That rising sea level, and predictions of bigger problems decades from now, are among the reasons why Billings’ town is paying for an engineering study aimed at safeguarding Stonington’s vital assets, she said.
The engineering study, which will cost $95,222, will target areas that are most susceptible to flooding within the next 100 years and provide suggestions on how to prevent or mitigate the flooding’s impact, according to the town’s grant proposal.
The funding package includes a $60,000 grant from the 2019 Coastal Communities Grant Program of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, plus $20,000 in cash and $10,722 in labor from the town. Another $4,500 in labor and cash will come from the Stonington Sanitary District, the proposal states.
With some scenarios predicting a sea level rise of one foot by the year 2050, two feet by 2070 and 3.7- to 6.3 feet by 2100, the town needs to get a handle on what can be done, especially when water levels get threateningly high during the heaviest storms, said Henry Teverow, the town’s economic development director.
Leila Pike, a water resources engineer at GEI Consultants Inc. of Portland, said she is paying particular attention to flooding issues and vulnerabilities in the Burnt Cove, Main Street and Airport, Moose Island and Oceanville roads areas of Stonington, a town of about 1,043 residents on the southeast end of Deer Isle.
None of these areas are in immediate peril, said Pike. Instead, the study will help town leaders set priorities in long-distance plans for the town and prepare responses to more immediate problems.
Some of the flooding demands some form of immediate response. For example, within the last two years, the basement at the town fire station has flooded during heavy storms. This hadn’t ever happened before and imperils the building, Teverow said.
Protecting Stonington port is a high priority for town leaders. According to a waterfront adaptation plan town officials released in February 2016, the value of the catch brought into the port between 2009 and 2014 was the highest among the top ten ports in Maine, a $46.1 million value. The next highest-yielding port was Portland with a preliminary estimate of $32.1 million.
Tied as they are to melting polar ice caps and global warming, predictions about rising sea levels can be controversial, but Stonington cannot afford to ignore them, especially when places that have no great history of flooding, such as the fire station, start seeing water, Teverow said.
“We can see it happening right in front of our eyes,” Teverow said. “Either we can start being prepared for it right now and doing some preparation for it, or we can be reacting to it and have it cost us more.”
Pike said she has about 25 percent of the study done and expects to finish next year.