The U.S. Coast Guard will start its ice-breaking mission Thursday on the Kennebec River, moving up the operation by about four days because of an early spring storm that is expected to move through region starting late Thursday or early Friday.

A storm spinning in the North Atlantic is likely to bring rain across central Maine, in amounts from a half-inch to an inch, and perhaps a little more on Friday.

While there are ice-free stretches on the Kennebec River, particularly between Waterville and Augusta, others areas both south and north of that stretch in the 6,000-square-mile watershed still are covered with ice, which is starting to melt and degrade.

“When we get increased flow in the river, the ice needs some place to go,” said Sean Goodwin, Kennebec County Emergency Management Agency director.

The ice-breaking operation is expected to open a channel, starting at Gardiner, to allow the ice to flush down the river and into the Atlantic Ocean.

“The ice rises and lowers with the tide; hence the cracks you can see near the shore,” Goodwin said.

When the ice starts to break up, the slabs and chunks can form jams, he said. The result can be flooding. Goodwin added that while there’s always potential for ice jams to form, it can be hard to judge where they will happen.

An aerial view of Water Street in Hallowell, as well as the mostly frozen Kennebec River, on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of the Division of Marine Resources

The decision to move up the mission came Wednesday during a conference call among the National Weather Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Maine Emergency Management Agency and several county emergency management directors.

The Coast Guard announced it’s sending two Coast Guard cutters — the Thunder Bay, a 140-foot tug that’s stationed in Rockland; and the Shackle, a 65-foot tug that’s stationed in Portland.

A second operation will clear ice on the Penobscot River.

“Our ice-breaking crews have done a tremendous job ensuring the waterways of Maine and New Hampshire remained open and safe throughout the season,” Lt. Matthew Odom, chief of the Waterways Management Division for the Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, said in a news release Wednesday.

“As temperatures rise, we intend to clear significant portions of the Penobscot and Kennebec rivers of ice to mitigate flood risks,” Odom said.

The decision sent both local emergency managers and the Maine State Warden Service out to check whether ice fishing shacks have been removed from the Kennebec, and the Department of Marine Resources assessed river ice conditions from the air.

James Brown, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, said the storm is on track to bring rain to Maine and New Hampshire, and probably snow to Vermont.

“The storm is typical for this time of year,” he said. “Where you are depends on whether you will see rain or snow.”

Brown said the rain is expected to start late Thursday or early Friday in the region. While less than an inch of rain is expected in the Augusta area, more is expected to fall north of Skowhegan.

“Most of the precipitation will probably happen Friday morning,” he said. “By the time we roll into mid-afternoon, we’ll see a little break.”

Brown said a lot of the rain probably will be absorbed by the snowpack. And while the daytime temperature will be in the 40s, it will drop below freezing at night, and that’s expected to slow the melting process.

Every year around this time, the river advisory group made up of federal, state and local officials, meets regularly to assess the water content of the snowpack and the ice conditions on the state’s major rivers. Historically, many of the river’s worst floods have occurred around this time.

“In our line of work,” Goodwin said, “we plan for the worst.”

 

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

 

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