Flooding concerns in check, snowmelt monitored
by Don Eno, Reporter
Apr 10, 2014 | 3054 views | 0 0 comments | 33 33 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This aerial photo of downtown Fort Kent, along the St. John River, was taken April 4 by Aroostook County Management Agency personnel in a Maine Forest Service helicopter. 
- Contributed photo
This aerial photo of downtown Fort Kent, along the St. John River, was taken April 4 by Aroostook County Management Agency personnel in a Maine Forest Service helicopter. - Contributed photo
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The St. John River near the Fort Kent / Clair, New Brunswick International Bridge shows signs of overflow and melting snow as warm temperatures remain through the week.
- SJVT photo / Manzer Belanger
The St. John River near the Fort Kent / Clair, New Brunswick International Bridge shows signs of overflow and melting snow as warm temperatures remain through the week. - SJVT photo / Manzer Belanger
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ST. JOHN VALLEY, Maine - For the time being, most town officials in the St. John Valley are not overly concerned with the possibility of imminent flooding. However, state and county emergency management personnel are in contact with town managers as snow continues melting.

John Davis, Frenchville's town manager, said that the town's public works director, Eric Blanchette, has been in regular contact with emergency management officials and has been keeping Davis up to date.

Things will be largely dictated by how fast the snow melts in the next couple of weeks, and whether or not ice jams on the St. John River cause waters to back up, he said.

"We are all keeping an eye on things right now," said Davis during an April 9 phone conversation.

"We will put together a (response) team when it's needed," he said. "Let's keep our fingers crossed."

In Fort Kent, the St. John River was nearly 15 feet below flood stage, according to the NOAA river and lake summary of April 10. The agency's April 3 outlook listed flood potential as "above normal."

"The river is still frozen upriver from here," Town Manager Donald Guimond said April 9. Guimond had just been reviewing the latest data about flooding potential, he said.

Guimond receives flood forecasts from sources in Canada. Guimond, councilors, public works and emergency services personnel have begun reviewing contingency plans.

"Yes, we have had those discussions with department heads," Guimond said.

Plans are in place to build a temporary levee in the area of the Fort Kent Blockhouse if needed, Guimond said.

"We're not there yet," he added.

"Because of what happened in 2008, we have done a significant amount of work,” he said. The elderly housing and some other residential units are no longer located in the areas prone to flooding, as an example.

"Any impact will be less, "Guimond said.

Regarding the situation surrounding the new international bridge construction project, Guimond said that he is "cautiously optimistic" that there will be no issues with ice jams or flooding.

"It's a concern, and we need to be aware of it," he said. "But, it would take all the stars aligned the wrong way for something drastic to occur."

Guimond commented that most large ice jams occur upriver or downriver from Fort Kent.

Guimond and other town staff utilize nearly a half dozen sources of data and forecasts in order to stay informed of flooding potential. Guimond reviews this information "practically daily."

In the event that flooding is imminent, Guimond said, affected property would be notified "door to door" if needed, by police or fire department personnel.

In Van Buren, outgoing Town Manager Thomas Cannon is also planning ahead.

"Basically, I'm very concerned," said Cannon.

"It's not a matter of 'if.' It’s a question of what the magnitude will be," he said during an April 9 phone call.

Cannon said that he has spoken with state and county officials about the potential for flooding and has shared information with the town council and department heads.

"It's wait and see for now," he said.

In 2008 the wastewater treatment system in Van Buren received the "biggest hit" from that flood, according to Cannon.

The U.S. port of entry station in town was also severely damaged. The backup of water and ice had scoured out much of the ground underlying that building, Cannon said. Eventually, it collapsed in on itself. The new port facility was opened last year, with staff and travelers having to make use of a temporary building in the interim.

If flooding occurs as it did in 2008, Cannon said, several of the wastewater pump stations would be impacted.

Madawaska Town Manager Christina Therrien said that she has not heard much concern voiced about flooding this spring in the town.

One thing that stands out from the 2008 flood, she said, is the decision by paper mill managers to shut down the steam pipes between the town and Edmundston, New Brunswick, because of the potential for pipe failure if the cold water came in contact with the hot steam pipes.

"That's not anything most people would think of," she said.

The town does not have any critical infrastructure located in the flood plain, said Therrien; however, she said, the new boat launch and camping area built behind the public works building could be impacted.

"We will need to keep an eye on that," she said.

Although the geography of Madawaska means that the town is less likely to be directly impacted by floodwaters, access to and from the town could be.

In 2008, sections of U.S. Route 1 in Frenchville were closed, which meant having to make use of much longer back roads. At that time, the Madawaska ambulance service had agreed to respond to calls on the east side of Frenchville, an area normally covered by Ambulance Services, Inc., out of Fort Kent.

Therrien said that similar arrangements to ensure public safety and rapid emergency services response would be utilized in the case of any serious flooding this year.

Allagash resident Sean Lizotte said that St. John River has changed in the past week, losing a lot of its snow cover in many areas due to overflowing water. He also said that more channels are now opening up.

Lizotte, who is also the town's fire chief, said that he has not heard of any imminent danger from flooding or ice jams.

"It's not melting fast enough to cause major problems right now," he said via telephone, April 10.

Darren Woods, director of Aroostook County Emergency Management Agency, said that as of April 10, NOAA has not changed its flood potential of "above normal."  The next flood forecast is due out April 17.

Woods took part in a helicopter flight over sections of the St. John and Aroostook rivers on April 4, he said during a phone call on April 10.

"There was still a lot of snow cover,” he said, making it difficult to spot changes in river ice.  

Woods did not see any major ice jams or areas of concern during that flight, he said. He anticipates a follow-up flight for some time next week. Woods has met with officials in Fort Kent and Fort Fairfield and has spoken with other town officials via telephone about potential flooding. His office also sends out regular e-mail updates to each town's emergency management director.

Conditions on the rivers and in the snowpack are "pretty good," said Woods. Water levels in the rivers are not very high, he noted, meaning that they could handle a "significant amount of water before any flooding occurs."

Woods is also encouraged by the weather trend, which has been providing cold nights with mild days, leading to a steady melting without a large release of water from a heat wave or heavy rains.

A review of snowpack conditions between 2008 and 2014 reveals that most of northern Maine has 3 to 5 fewer inches of "water equivalent" in the snowpack than at this same time six years ago. According to Maine Cooperative Snow Survey data on Maine's River Flow Advisory Commission's Web site, in 2008 most of the northern part of the state had an estimated 12 inches or more of water equivalent in the last week in March, while this year most of the area is estimated to have between 7 and 9 inches. When contrasted with the historical average for water equivalent, the area's snowpack this year is between 25 and 50 percent of that average. In 2008 it was in the upper 10 percent, meaning it was an unusually wet snowpack. The 2008 snowpack survey also illustrates that the major river drainages in the region had in excess of 12 inches of water equivalent, whereas most drainages currently are estimated to have between 7 and 9 inches.