It’s been an interesting winter, one state official said Tuesday.
She and others charged with keeping an eye on the Kennebec and other rivers that flow through Somerset and Kennebec counties are waiting to see if that means it’s going to be an interesting spring as well.
A cold, snowy winter built up the potential for spring flooding around the Kennebec River, according to the National Weather Service and Maine Emergency Management Agency, but that alone won’t lead to floods. A warm, rainy stretch of weather is needed for any major flood issues.
Officials at the two agencies say heavy snowfall and long cold stretches have built up the snowpack and ice on local rivers, particularly the Kennebec, providing the potential to disrupt water flow and flood the surrounding area. The 230-mile-long Kennebec River originates at Moosehead Lake in Somerset County and flows down to Merrymeeting Bay.
“In any given year there is risk of flooding,” said Lynnette Miller, director of communications for MEMA. She said this year the amount of snow and ice makes the odds of flooding “possibly above normal levels.”
“The closer we get to spring, with a lot of water in the snowpacks and a lot of ice in the river, the closer we get to a rainstorm that starts the problems,” she said.
Measurements of the thickness of the snowpack — the accumulation of snow that acts like a sponge, holding a reservoir of water that melts off during warm temperatures or rainstorms — will be discussed at Thursday’s annual River Flow Advisory Commission meeting in Augusta. The snowpack at the headwaters of rivers is particularly of interest.
The annual meeting is where some municipalities learn about the year’s likelihood of spring flooding, Skowhegan Fire Chief Shawn Howard said Tuesday.
“From our standpoint, after the meeting, we’ll talk about the issues and plan for the worst-case scenario while hoping for the best case,” Howard said. “This year does appear to look a little different. It’s the first week of March, and we certainly do have more snow and ice than we’ve seen in recent years. Certainly the potential is there.”
Meanwhile, the risk of flooding was predicted to be normal by a geological expert who visited the lower end of the Kennebec River Tuesday. Greg Stewart, data section chief for the United States Geological Survey, measured the thickness of the river ice just above the Richmond-Dresden bridge, and found the ice thickness ranged between 1.2 and 1.6 feet of ice at six spots between the shores of Richmond and Dresden. He said that’s normal for this time of year.
Heavy snow or cold temperatures don’t always add up to a heavy flood season. Warmer temperatures followed by heavy rainstorm is needed to release the built up water, according to Miller.
“The flood in 1987 came after a normal snow season. We just had an enormous rainstorm in the headwaters that brought the river waters up,” she said. “By contrast, in 2001 we had a succession of horrible snowstorms in March and had well over a foot of water in the snowpack looming, but we didn’t get a drop of rain in April.”
Town officials in the Waterville area treat the possibility of spring floods the same as other potential weather-related problems.
“Right now, we’re doing nothing out of the ordinary. It’s the same as expecting a snowstorm,” said Paul Fongemie, director of public works in Winslow, where the Sebasticook River flows into the Kennebec. “It’s fully dependent on the forecast the next couple weeks.”
Communication among state, national and local departments is vital to prevent damage from river flooding, with organizations such as Maine Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Weather Service updating county and town officials.
“If flooding is going to occur, we work with the Somerset Emergency Operations Center, and we work closely with dam operators and other agencies” Howard said. “Communication is the vital piece.”
The River Flow Advisory Commission, members of which include the USGS, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the National Weather Service, is holding its annual meeting 10 a.m. Thursday at the Maine Emergency Management Agency office in Augusta. The commission will discuss factors affecting the spring flood potential, including current stream flow, snowpack, river ice cover and weather outlook.
“It’s been an interesting winter,” Miller said. “I think it has everyone’s interest piqued.”