An exceptionally high tide in the Damariscotta River in January 2018 flooded the town's riverside parking lot and the bottom floors of some of buildings on the south side of Main Street. Credit: Courtesy of the town of Damariscotta

DAMARISCOTTA, Maine — With the help of a multi-million dollar federal grant, town officials are hoping to protect the local downtown from its biggest natural asset: the scenic, tidal Damariscotta River.

In the 1960s, when a newly built section of Route 1 was built to bypass downtown Damariscotta, the town gained a new downtown riverside parking lot when the fill removed for the road project was dumped and leveled behind a row of buildings along the south side of Main Street.

But that asset has proven to be more vulnerable than originally thought more than 50 years ago, as rising sea levels are making the parking lot and adjacent businesses more prone to flooding. Armed with $3 million in federal funds, plus more than $1 million in additional money raised directly from residents and businesses, the town is developing plans for how to keep the river at bay when exceptionally high tides bring the ocean up against the back doorsteps of businesses such as Renys and Artsake Custom Framing.

The problem is not unique to Damariscotta as rising sea levels caused by climate change are affecting towns all along the Maine coast, from York to Washington counties. Many of them are assessing how they might adapt to the changing conditions. But Damariscotta, with more than $4 million committed to making improvements, is further along than most.

“We need to do something to protect our downtown buildings,” said Matt Lutkus, Damariscotta’s town manager. When exceptionally high tides occur, and when storm surge flows up the tidal river from the Gulf of Maine, roughly 15 miles downstream, he said, “the water comes up through the storm drains.”

The town gets such flooding in its parking lot maybe twice a year, he said, and twice has had floods that came in through the back doors of Main Street businesses — in 1978 and in 2008. Now, whenever exceptional high tides are predicted, the town takes precautionary measures to protect the buildings from infiltration.

“Everytime we know there is going to be a flood, we put sandbags by their back doors,” Lutkus said.

This past spring, the town was awarded a $3 million grant by the federal Economic Development Administration to fund improvements that should make sandbags unnecessary. In addition, the town has raised $1.3 million in direct donations to help with other improvements in the riverside parking lot.

Lutkus said that the improvements will entail raising the elevation of all or some of the back parking lot, which now is lower in some areas than others. The town could put in a wall or a berm to keep out the water — as Machias is considering along a low-lying section of Route 1 in Down East Maine — but the town does not want to obstruct the view of the river from the parking lot, which is a major draw to the downtown, he said.

The town also is looking at upgrading the lot’s storm sewers so water can flow into the river, but not in the opposite direction, he said. The lot also will be made more pedestrian friendly, to create better separation between vehicle travel lanes and people who walk to the river’s edge.

Lutkus said the town plans to replace wastewater pipes that are under the parking lot, many of which are made of clay and likely are leaking into the ground — though, he added, there is no evidence that they are. He said the town is acutely aware that the water quality of the river, the focal point of the state’s $7.6 million oyster aquaculture industry, should remain as pristine as possible.

The town also is putting in public restrooms, which many have felt are overdue. The town has no public restrooms downtown, and will spend roughly $750,000 of the $1.3 million in privately donated funds to design and construct a new bathroom building in the parking lot. The bathrooms will be about 3 feet higher than the current parking lot level so they don’t also get flooded.

Lutkus acknowledged that some people might argue that the money should be spent on combating climate change, rather than just adapting to it. Towns that already are facing the impacts of sea level rise cannot choose between the two, he said.

“We have to do both,” he said.

To help combat climate change, the town had Sundog Solar install a solar power array on its old landfill, which went online this past summer, that is providing power to town buildings and its two traffic lights. The town also has plans to replace all the bulbs in its street lights with LED bulbs, which are more energy efficient, and to install two electric vehicle charging stations in the rebuilt parking lot.

“We’re one of the towns on the forefront in reducing the use of fossil fuels,” Lutkus said.

The town hopes to have the new bathrooms up and running by next summer, he said. The rebuilt parking lot, pending whatever final design the town adopts, is expected to be done by the summer of 2022.

Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date in the featured photo.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....