Weathering the Storms

How to Protect Our Water, Wildlife, and Well-Being in the Face of Extreme Floods

Recently, news feeds have been filled with alarming images of floodwaters ravaging the landscape in Vermont, New York, and Connecticut. Similarly, the May storm that brought nearly 5 inches of rain in less than 24 hours to much of Maine was a harsh reminder of the increased severity and frequency of extreme weather events that are wreaking havoc on local roadways. Data confirm this trend. In a 2020 report from the Maine Climate Council’s Scientific and Technical Subcommitee, “Heavy precipitation in the northeastern U.S. is increasing at a higher rate than any other region of the country.”

Forests blunt the effects of intense storms by absorbing rainfall.

Our work to conserve forests, which help to absorb rainfall, is one way to combat these heavy rain events. Their impacts would undoubtedly be even more severe without these natural places. But there’s only so much forests can do before they become oversaturated. During intense storms, undersized culverts and other areas where streams intersect with roads (known as stream crossings) act as bottlenecks, causing water levels to rise upstream and flood roads. The result is erosion and washouts that pose public safety risks; waterways compromised by polluted runoff; and costly repairs shouldered by state agencies, municipalities, and landowners. So, what can conservation groups and community members do about it? In a nutshell: install appropriate infrastructure.

As a coalition working to protect water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and other benefits of forested land in the Sebago Lake watershed, Sebago Clean Waters (SCW) is catalyzing the effort to improve stream crossings in order to restore fish passageways and decrease flood risks in the region. Through our Natural Resources Conservation Service Regional Conservation Partnership Program award, we are supporting several culvert removal and replacement projects in the watershed over the next few years.

Undersized culverts, like this one in Naples, can cause erosion
and washouts, posing public safety risks.
This open bottom culvert in Bridgton provides a wide area through which water can flow under a road, reducing the chances of
washouts and easing fish passage.

These projects can involve installing correctly sized pipes or a larger, open bottom culvert, and/or removing unused dams and allowing the stream to return to its natural state. Bridgton-based SCW partner Lakes Environmental Association is leading these waterway improvements in collaboration with municipalities, landowners, and other environmental organizations. They will allow native brook trout and landlocked salmon to reach their spawning and feeding grounds while creating more resilient stream crossings.

As a landowner, you can do your part to lessen the impacts of these extreme storms by:

    • Protecting your lakefront property and nearby water bodies from erosion and runoff by getting a free assessment from Portland Water District or Lakes Environmental Association through their Sebago Lakescaping and LakeSmart programs.

Maine is certain to see many more destructive floods as the climate continues to warm and the atmosphere is able to hold more moisture. With organizations and community members working together to make landscapes more resilient through accelerated forest conservation, as well as right-sized infrastructure and other erosion-control methods, we can better protect the health and well-being of both wild and human communities.

Note: Thanks to 30 Mile River Watershed Association in Mt. Vernon for originally compiling some of this information.