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MAINE EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY
When York County Rivers Rise, Information Flows
April 28, 2008
In the past, when one dam owner on York County’s Mousam River opened their flood gates, they might have done so without considering the impact downstream. That was before two severe floods in two years prompted County Emergency Management Director Robert Bohlmann to improve river coordination.
All together there are ten dams on the Mousam River. They are owned by Kennebunk Light and Power, Ridgewood Maine Hydro, and the Towns of Sanford and Alfred. “We have municipalities and two power generating facilities,” Bohlmann said. “We do not have any private dam owners.” For Bohlmann, that is a good thing. “That might be a sticky wicket, because it is tough to keep them involved and part of the process,” he said.
Sanford Fire Chief Ray Parent said the problem was lack of information. “There was certainly a misunderstanding about where the water went when it fell on the earth, and what path it took to travel,” he said. “When water went to certain places some people got flooded out, and some people did not, and we needed to learn and coordinate more.”
Bohlmann and his team brought together representatives from the electric companies, municipalities of Sanford and Alfred, plus area water and sewer districts. “We coordinated the four controlling entities, with other entities that are impacted that we bring in for information.”
The group did not come together quickly. “In the beginning, I don’t know that dam owners supported it,” Bohlmann said. Eventually, though, sustained storm damage helped them to understand the need for dialogue. “The owners upstream didn’t think that they needed it, but as we got together, they realized we need to talk,” he said. “It’s all about communication. That’s all it is, nothing but good communication between each other.”
In 2007, York County dealt with severe floods for the second time in as many years, when the Patriots Day storm, considered the worst storm since the 1998 Ice Storm, claimed three lives and caused an estimated $45 million in damage. The storm also damaged sewer systems. Kennebunk’s sewer district sustained $2.5 million in flood damage, and Sanford’s district, $500,000. “The damage was very significant,” Bohlmann said.
In May of 2006 storm, 12 inches of rain fell in some parts of York County, including more than eight inches in just 24 hours. In addition, waters nearly topped dams on the nearby Salmon Falls River. If those dams had failed, nearly 1,000 families would have been impacted.
For Bohlmann, the river coordination group helps prepare the Mousam community for flood events. “We have contact with all of the dam owners,” Bohlmann said. “We know, for example, that we do not have a dam closed between us and Kennebunk that could help us if it were opened. We know that we are flowing everything we can flow.” With better communication, he hopes that notification time can increase. “We can tell those in Kennebunk’s Intervale neighborhood now that you’re going to flood, because the water is getting that high,” he said. “But even better, we can tell you six hours before it happens that you need to get the heck out of there. That’s what this group helps us to do, is plan.”
Bohlmann knows coordination is just the first step. Recently the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Maine Department of Transportation placed a river gauge on the Mousam which provides them and emergency planners with vital flow data. “We’re working through the grant process to install a second gauge,” he said. “That will provide us with even more information and planning tools to work with.”
Parent urges caution, saying that this new coordination, though a step forward, will not guarantee flood-free storms. “These dams were not created for flood control,” he said. “They were built because of mills that needed water to operate their machines.” Parent explained that most of the dams on the Mousam have no reservoirs to hold excess water, but that dialog between owners remains an asset. “There were issues that were just not understood before,” he said, “and as we got together, we began to make our local owners more aware of the fact that the things they do with their dams affect other people. We can only control water to some degree, but our biggest goal was to create a system where people called immediately to find out what is happening.”
“We will keep this group together, and keep them talking,” Bohlmann said. “Even if we don’t have storms coming, we are going to get together on a regular basis just to touch base.” He plans to organize meetings each spring to keep contact and operational information up to date. “This group is part of our county emergency operations plan and will be kept that way,” he said.
Bohlmann thinks the coordination group has saved river communities this spring. “We’ve held water at a distance,” he said. “We have had potential for flooding. Kennebunk has called and said their dams are near max, so Sanford shut down and held water back for 24 hours. We have been working back and forth so that nobody gets inundated, so that we don’t flood the upper end, or we don’t flood the lower end. That type of coordination has worked.”
Constant communication is key. “We talk almost every day with the folks up and down the river,” Bohlmann said. “We send the snow pack reports out every week to them so that they can look at the information for themselves.”
“I’m trying to put planning emphasis on the owners, to let them make their own decisions about how to operate after talking with their neighbors,” he said. “I want them to look at all of the information, communicate with other dam owners, and decide for themselves what the prudent thing to do is.”
For more information on the Mousam River coordination group, contact York County Emergency Management Agency at 324-1578.
Contact:York County EMA
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