The U.S. Coast Guard on Tuesday halted its efforts to break up the frozen Kennebec River, as the thick sections of ice that have formed over the waterway haven’t seemed to budge after contributing to destructive flooding two weeks ago in downtown Hallowell and Augusta.

The ice on the river hasn’t broken loose and flowed southward despite the Coast Guard’s efforts, and the federal agency encountered challenging ice conditions throughout the unprecedented seven-day operation.

News of the Coast Guard suspending its effort reached smelt camp owners along the Kennebec, after they had removed fishing shacks in anticipation of the vessels’ unusual midwinter effort. At Baker’s Smelt Camps in Pittston, Richard Potter was busy Tuesday sawing holes through ice and putting shacks back up.

“We hope to have them all out by tomorrow,” Potter said Tuesday morning, “and rented.”

The Coast Guard vessels included three 65-foot cutters and one 140-foot icebreaker. They made it to the Richmond-Dresden bridge on Sunday after making slow progress over the previous week, but failed to make it as far upriver as Gardiner — the intended end point.

“In order to improve the flow of the river, our cutters not only have to break the ice, but they have to make sure it flushes down the river,” said Capt. Michael Baroody, commander of Coast Guard Sector Northern New England. “The below-freezing temperatures, narrow navigational channels, and significant ice accumulation made it very difficult to properly flush out the ice.

“It took a tremendous effort from our ice breakers to reach Richmond and we did everything we could despite the challenging conditions.”

In mid-January, a period of warm weather and heavy rain caused the ice on the river to break into chunks and flow downstream. But those chunks jammed up a section of river in Farmingdale, causing the rapid rise of upstream water in Hallowell and Augusta. Then they froze into place as cold temperature returned to the region.

Last week, the Coast Guard sent the icebreakers up the river earlier than it normally does in the year, in an attempt to flush the river of its midwinter ice and ward off further flooding in low-lying areas. However, those efforts haven’t led to a flushing of the upstream ice.

Now there is nothing more the Coast Guard can do until the spring breakup, which usually happens in March or April, said Sean Goodwin, the director of the Kennebec County Emergency Management Agency. Until then, he said, towns and cities along the river are being urged to watch the river’s level and check the weather forecast often.

“Having hope is not having a plan,” Goodwin said. “Keep a weather eye to the river.”

The Coast Guard received a request a week ago from the Maine Emergency Management Agency to break out the ice on the Kennebec to reduce the risk of further flooding. The depth of the river and low height of the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Bridge linking Gardiner and Randolph limit the Coast Guard’s ability to reach the ice jam, but it will break ice to open up water downriver to improve the river flow, according to Lt. Matthew Odom, chief of the Waterways Management Division in northern New England.

Front Street in Augusta re-opened Monday for the first time since icy water from the Kennebec flooded the riverfront parking lot earlier this month. Lt. Kevin Lully, of the Augusta Police Department, said the department is constantly monitoring and evaluating information provided by the National Weather Service in conjunction with tidal changes, as well as monitoring communities north and south of Augusta to see how river conditions might affect the city’s downtown.

Lesley Jones, the public works director in Augusta, said she monitors the hydrograph that the weather service has and has encouraged residents to sign up for flood notifications on the city’s website or one of the national weather sites.

As of Tuesday evening, the Kennebec River was at 9.22 feet at the U.S. Geological Survey gauge at the Calumet Bridge at Old Fort Western in Augusta; flood stage is 12 feet.

Gardiner Fire Chief Al Nelson said he’s been checking the ice jam north of the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Bridge daily and will continue to make sure nothing is changing or moving.

“If there’s going to be a rapid warming or a significant amount of rain, that would change things,” Nelson said. “We can be a little proactive as far as monitoring and reacting to the potential of what we can see coming.”

Nelson said there isn’t much else the city or county officials can do, other than monitor the weather and wait for Mother Nature to run its course. He said he’s hoping for a slow warm-up with no heavy rain and for the ice to go out when it normally does.

“If it doesn’t, we might have a problem,” he said. “We’ll keep an eye on it, and if we have to put our warnings, we will.”

In Hallowell, Front Street flooding two weeks ago damaged nearly 20 vehicles and several businesses, including the Quarry Tap Room and the Easy Street Lounge.

A review by the Kennebec Journal found that local officials in Hallowell failed to act on a flood warning issued by the National Weather Service, and no notifications went out to those in low-lying areas.

City officials have worked to improve their citywide notification system alerting residents and business owners of potential flooding, and there has been an electric sign on the north end of Water Street with warnings since last week.

City Manager Nate Rudy said the city is working on some new-technology ideas with federal and state agencies that would give residents more sources of advance notice for flooding and other weather events.

Bruce Mayo, owner of the Easy Street Lounge, said he thinks the Coast Guard made a great effort to break out the ice on the river, but he said the weather wasn’t cooperating.

“It looks like we’re at a standstill until it warms up a bit,” Mayo said. “I guess it’s a waiting game, which it is most years.”

Staff writer Charles Eichacker contributed to this report.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

 

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