Why Rivers Matter in a Changing Climate

Conditions on the Maine coast are rapidly changing. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 95% of the world’s oceans; sea level is expected to rise six feet in the next fifty years; some of our roads and bridges are already under water at high tide; storms are increasing in intensity and frequency.

Here’s the good news: according to a report released by the United Nations in 2019, land conservation is one of the most important and effective methods of reducing the negative impacts of climate change.

The work Maine Coast Heritage Trust has already accomplished over the last 50 years—protecting over 150,000 acres of land—means the Maine coast is in better shape than it might have been otherwise. The forests and marshes we’ve protected are absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, cleaning our air and waters, and protecting our homes, buildings, and other infrastructure from flooding and storm surge.

Over the past five years MCHT has partnered to add nature like fishways to the Bagaduce River watershed to improve fish passage.

Also, more protected land means more habitat for wildlife to migrate to as they adjust to the changing climate—and with 75% of Maine’s species vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change, this is critical. At MCHT, we’re focused on protecting connected land that allows these species to move and adapt to the changes.

Healthy, free-flowing rivers provide a ribbon of connected habitat, not only for fish, but for all wildlife species, who benefit from the cooler, moist habitat and depend on the water and food these rivers provide. Free-flowing rivers also allow sea-run fish like alewives to complete their annual migration from the ocean up Maine rivers to inland lakes and ponds to deposit their eggs. When alewives (sometimes called the “fish that feed us all”) are numerous, other animals have a better shot at surviving and adapting to a changing climate. Beyond that, alewives help clean our rivers, ponds, and lakes by removing pollution.

“It’s all connected—the land, the rivers, the sea. To make the Maine coast as resilient as possible in the coming decades, we have to think holistically.”

Unfortunately, up and down the coast, Maine rivers are blocked by dams, culverts, and other barriers, which has led to a decline in alewives and, along with it, a decline in the habitat value of our rivers and the land along their banks.

To reverse this trend, and make the coast and its wildlife more resilient to climate change, we launched the Rivers Initiative in 2017. Over the past five years, we’ve been working to protect land, remove barriers, and restore habitat and fish passage in three key Downeast river systems: the Bagaduce, the Narraguagus, and the Orange.

• In the Bagaduce River, a series of partnership projects and the installation of five nature-like fishways over five years has resulted in the first fully restored coastal watershed for fish passage in Maine.

• While we continue to work with local, state, and federal agencies to improve fish passage in the Narraguagus River, we’ve teamed up with partners on habitat restoration projects in and along theriver, and have completed seven land protection projects in the area—including a partnership contribution to The Nature Conservancy’s Spring River Narraguagus project resulting in the conservation of 13,500 acres.

• In the Orange River, we’ve protected 3,272 acres through six unique conservation projects to ensure high water quality in this Downeast watershed, and we continue to work with the community of Whiting to restore fish passage at three dams.

Building on this success, MCHT has expanded our Initiative to include the Sheepscot River in Midcoast Maine and the Mousam River in Southern Maine, unique watersheds where a little investment in land protection and river restoration has the potential to go a long way.

“I look forward to extending that impact of the Rivers Initiative into these new watersheds,” says Betsy Ham, Director of Land Protection. “It’s all connected—the land, the rivers, the sea. To make the Maine coast as resilient as possible in the coming decades, we have to think holistically.”

Learn more about the Rivers Initiative

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