AUGUSTA — The recent unseasonably warm temperatures and frequent rain haven’t just freed local roads, driveways and sidewalks from ice, they’ve also softened up ice in the Kennebec River, creating at least one ice jam and prompting concerns about similarly unseasonable mid-winter flooding.
While no flooding was reported along the Kennebec in the region Friday, a relatively small ice jam remained on the river in Sidney. And if that jam were to move down river, jam up again and grow larger, it could cause flooding with little or no warning.
That’s what happened in January of 2010 when an ice jam more than a mile long flooded Augusta and Hallowell’s downtowns, filling streets, parking lots and basements with icy water.
“In 2010, I happened to be right there on Front Street (on the riverfront in downtown Augusta) when it happened,” said Richard Beausoleil, emergency management director for Kennebec County. “It jammed up and it wasn’t 10 minutes before water was pouring into the parking lot like a fire hose going into a bathtub. We’re certainly watching the river. Ever since last weekend when it really poured here, we’ve asked our partners to watch it, and be vigilant.”
A flood warning was issued for Sidney along the Kennebec River Wednesday night but was discontinued Thursday afternoon.
Beausoleil said the jam in Sidney was a small one and, because the river is in a steep valley with no homes in that area, there wasn’t much risk to property or people.
Parts of the downtowns of Augusta, Gardiner and Hallowell could be at risk for flooding from the Kennebec any time it rains heavily in the winter, Beausoleil said. And ice jam floods can be very fast floods, he said.
“If people live on the river they need to be aware,” he said.
Gardiner Police Chief James Toman said the river is being monitored but, “Unfortunately, if flooding happens, there’s really nothing we can do about it, other than alert the public.”
Last week, before heavy rain, Gardiner Police warned residents who live downtown and others who park in the Arcade parking lot alongside Cobbossee Stream, near where it enters the Kennebec River, to be on the lookout for flooding. Toman said those same residents should stay on alert.
“People just need to be aware and be prepared to take action, and don’t wait too long and put themselves or someone else in harm’s way,” Toman said.
Margaret Curtis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, said Friday afternoon the Kennebec River in Sidney was at 15.3 feet. Flood stage is 17 feet.
“But if there was no ice in the river, we estimate (the river level) would be around six feet lower, so the ice is having an impact there,” Curtis said. “Typically this is the kind of thing we go through in the spring. It’s January, so it’s a little early. It will probably remain that way, frankly, for the rest of the winter. Once the ice is broken up into bits and pieces, it’s like ice cubes in a tray, those pieces can move around. And if it refreezes, you end up with a big mass of ice.”
Beausoleil said there is still between 12 and 24 inches of ice on some parts of the river while, in the 2010 flooding, the ice was only about 10 inches thick.
The thicker ice reduces the chances it will break up, so it’s more likely to stay in place. The flip side is if the thicker ice does break up, move and jam, the jam could be more severe because the thicker ice could cause a bigger jam.
Ice conditions were looking so dire with last weekend’s heavy rain that some smelt camp operators on the river, heeding warnings about the weather, including Baker’s Smelt Camps in Pittston and Sonny’s Smelt Fishing in Dresden, pulled their shacks, though both fishing operations have since put their shacks back out.
“We took the precaution, we pulled the shacks last week but nothing happened,” Sonny Newton, owner of Sonny’s Smelt Fishing, said. “They’re back out now. We’ve got 12 to 14 inches of ice. We’re okay. We haven’t got the ice we did have. Conditions aren’t as good. But we’re still safe.”
Ice fisherman who ply Maine’s lakes and ponds for fish need to use caution as that ice has deteriorated, too, according to the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
“Ice conditions are getting treacherous and anglers should use common sense,” Jason Seiders, a biologist with Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said in an ice fishing report released Friday. “Edges are bad, old holes are widening — people need to use caution.”
Seiders added that ice conditions could get better quickly with the cold weather predicted to arrive soon.
Curtis said the forecast for the area over the weekend includes temperatures around freezing, which shouldn’t cause much ice movement. She said it should be back down into the 20s Monday and even colder Tuesday.
Keith Edwards – 621-5647 [email protected]