March 18, 2013

Is Maine ready for climate changes?

Democratic lawmakers may restart planning for predicted effects like storms and floods that was halted by the LePage administration.

By Colin Woodard cwoodard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA - When Hurricane Sandy slammed into the New York and New Jersey coasts last fall, killing 72 people and causing tens of billions in damage, many saw it as a wakeup call: The country is unprepared for the increased frequency and intensity of freak weather events -- a long-predicted result of climate change -- and a great deal of planning needs to be done to protect homes, infrastructure and businesses.

click image to enlarge

A car, lower right, is trapped in the wreckage of a beachfront house in the Far Rockaways in the Queens borough of New York in January, three months after Hurricane Sandy. States across the Northeast are creating plans to prepare for effects of climate change, but in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration halted creation of a climate adaptation strategy.

The Associated Press

"Regardless of the cause of these storms, New York State must undertake major reforms to adapt to the reality that storms such as Sandy, Irene and Lee can strike at any time," Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said as he appointed three expert commissions to assess the state's infrastructure and build a "comprehensive blueprint" to ensure it can survive such events.

Across New England as well, governments are drawing up detailed plans to prepare their states for the changing climate, which in this region is expected to get warmer and wetter.

In Maine, by contrast, Gov. Paul LePage's administration has halted creation of the state's climate adaptation strategy, arguing it represents a waste of limited resources. Officials in the Department of Environmental Protection have ceased tracking progress on previously endorsed efforts to prepare the state for flooding, storms, early thaws and other observed effects of the changing climate.

"I think every state has to address how they want to go forward on this and the level of detail that works for them," said DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho, who wants responsibility for any future climate adaptation plan to be taken away from her agency. "I look for guidance from the Natural Resources Committee (of the Legislature), because they are the ones who prioritize our workload. They did not ask for a briefing from us (on this issue) in the (Republican-controlled) 125th Legislature."

With both houses of the Legislature now under Democratic control, the question of how best to prepare for the changing weather is being reopened, with Democrats proposing legislation that would direct the state to resume the drafting of a detailed plan as envisioned by former Gov. John Baldacci's administration.

The central point of contention in the forthcoming debate is what role the state should play in preparing a game plan and coordinating and assisting efforts by towns, cities, businesses, citizens groups and government agencies to respond to present and predicted effects of the changing climate.

At stake is the efficacy of those efforts, and the efficiency with which they are carried out.

ACTIONS RECOMMENDED IN 2010

In 2009, the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed a law directing the DEP to create a climate change report, which was completed and published in 2010.

It contained 60 recommendations on actions the state needed to take to confront predicted climate change effects, the first of which was to draft a detailed climate adaptation plan.

Legislators passed a second bill in 2010 directing the DEP to create this detailed plan by January 2012.

"There was certainly a sense after the initial report that there were issues that needed to be fleshed out, and that much more work was yet to be done to create an actual adaptation plan," said David Littell, who was DEP commissioner under Baldacci.

"Everything from culverts to roads to bridges to businesses are being impacted by our changing weather," said state Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, who championed the second bill as chair of the Natural Resources Committee.

"If we don't move forward and take this under consideration, we're just going to fall behind and the costs are going to increase significantly."

Stakeholders agreed that having a detailed plan in place was essential, both to take advantage of expected future federal funding for climate change-related activities and to have sound economic analysis of which of the many possible investments would offer the greatest benefit per dollar spent.

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