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Presumscot River Creates a Brown Bay

Stormwater: the Largest Source of Pollution into Casco Bay

Presumscot River Creates a Brown Bay
A wedge of polluted fresh water floats on top of Casco Bay.

MS4. Unless you are a civil engineer or a municipal public works director charged with dealing with discharge permits, you may not know that “MS4” stands for municipal separate storm sewer systems (called MS4 because “s” is repeated four times). An MS4 is a system of storm drains, pipes, or ditches that collect and carry stormwater, untreated, into our waterways (not to a sewage treatment facility).

To reduce stormwater pollution, the Clean Water Act requires larger cities and towns to develop an MS4 plan that includes six Minimum Control Measures: public education, public involvement and participation, illicit discharge
detection and elimination (finding and eliminating sources of contamination that improperly enter the pipes), construction measures designed to reduce stormwater pollution, post construction inspections to ensure compliance, and municipal pollution prevention practices.

MS4 permits for these plans must be renewed every five years. Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca is participating in the stakeholder process initiated by Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, as it drafts the next MS4 permit.
You may have noticed that storms are more intesne, and the pollutants that rainstorms are flushing into the Bay are increasing dramatically. After one heavy rainstorm, we found a wedge of polluted stormwater 18 feet deep floating on top of seawater in Portland Harbor. Ivy worries,“Imagine what it would be like for a fish trying to navigate through that toxic mix of oil and gas from city streets, pesticides, bacteria, and nitrogen pollution from sewage and fertilizers!”

Ivy says, “The goal is to improve water quality and reduce nitrogen inputs and other pollutants. Reviewing and commenting on drafts of the next MS4 permit gives us an opportunity to help reduce the impacts of the largest source of pollution into Casco Bay.”

Sewage Treatment Plant courtesy of Portland Water District

Historic Agreement to Cut Nitrogen by 20-40%

Sewage Treatment Plant courtesy of Portland Water District
Sewage Treatment Plant courtesy of Portland Water District

Imagine if we could remove 500 to 1,000 pounds of excess nitrogen from the Bay each day. An historic effort by Portland Water District may do just that!

After nearly a year of work, the Portland Water District and Friends of Casco Bay developed an agreement aimed at reducing nitrogen pollution from sewage effluent. The collaboration helped the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) develop a 139-page,
five-year permit for the City of Portland’s East End Wastewater Treatment Facility, which is managed by the Water District, that will better protect water quality. The permit was issued on March 22, 2017.

The $12 million upgrade to the plant’s aeration system may help reduce nitrogen in the plant’s effluent waters by 500 to 1,000 pounds each day!

The aim is to reduce nitrogen loading in the discharges from the plant by 20-40% within five years. This is the first wastewater discharge permit in Maine to address nitrogen levels and is now a model for other communities.

A History of Our Work to Reduce Nitrogen in Casco Bay
In 2007, Friends of Casco Bay helped persuade the Maine Legislature to pass a law requiring the Maine DEP to establish a limit on how much nitrogen may be discharged into coastal waters. Instead of following the Legislature’s lead, DEP has chosen to limit nitrogen permit by permit in Casco Bay. This had led Friends of Casco Bay to work with DEP, municipalities, and businesses, to help set realistic limits on nitrogen in Clean Water Act discharge permits issued to sewage treatment plants and industrial facilities.

We are working with the City of Portland on its Combined Sewer Overflow Remediation Project that will help reduce
nitrogen-laden sewage overflows into the Bay.

Our pumpout boat removes raw sewage—another source of nitrogen—from the holding tanks of recreational boats and transports, for onshore disposal. Contact pumpout [at] cascobay [dot] org.

Our BayScaping program works with residents and municipalities to help keep fertilizers and pesticides from polluting the Bay. We present BayScaping Socials to help neighbors reduce the use of lawn chemicals. With our support, South Portland passed an ordinance to restrict pesticide use, with an assurance to tackle fertilizers next. Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell served on the Portland Pesticide Task Force as that city considers a similar ordinance.

Working With . . . the Portland Pesticides Task Force

“The draft ordinance is a good start. It doesn’t solve every problem, but I think this is a compromise that pesticide applicators, scientists, and concerned citizens can live with. Its goal is to encourage people to build up the quality of their soil for natural resiliency against pests,” says Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell, a member of the Portland Pesticides Task Force.

In 2001, Research Associate Mike Doan stood in the pouring rain to capture stormwater as it gushed into Back Cove. He repeated this soggy task dozens of times all around the rim of Casco Bay. Lab analyses of those jars of water he collected identified 9 different pesticides in 14 locations. With this information, we were able to state definitively that rainwater picks up pesticides as it flows toward the Bay.

The data Mike collected became the foundation of our BayScaping Program, which has educated thousands of residents and landscapers on how to use ecological lawn care practices, instead of pesticides and fertilizers, to ensure a green yard and a blue Bay. Yet, years later, we find that the ornamental use of lawn chemicals is still extensive in Maine. That is why we became involved in “grassroots” efforts to restrict the use of pesticides and fertilizers.

Last summer, Cathy Ramsdell, Executive Director of Friends of Casco Bay and a Portland resident, was asked to join the 12-member Portland Pesticides Task Force. It was a diverse group of stakeholders, including concerned citizens, lawn care professionals, and scientists.

Cathy found herself a fulcrum for the group, as she sought to find common ground among disparate interests. She was so frequently the voice of reason that other task force members started quoting Cathy’s remarks to move the group toward a centrist position.

After eight months of meetings, the Pesticides Task Force voted 11 to 1 on February 27 to submit a draft ordinance to the Sustainability and a draft ordinance to the Sustainability and Transportation Committee for further action. Cathy is hopeful that Maine’s largest city will ultimately adopt an ordinance that:

  • Bans the use of pesticides by professionals and residents on lawns,
    patios, and driveways
  • Bans pesticides within 75 feet of the water
  • Creates an advisory committee to develop data on pesticide use

Working With . . . the Portland Water District

Friends of Casco Bay’s Ivy Frignoca and Portland Water District’s Scott Firmin forged an agreement that aims to significantly reduce nitrogen in the treated wastewater released into Casco Bay from Portland’s East End Wastewater Treatment Facility.

Major changes planned by the Portland Water District promise to help reduce the flow of nitrogen-laden wastewater in a big way. The effluent from 65,000 Portland residents, as well as visitors and commercial facilities in the city, passes through the East End Wastewater Treatment Plant. With a $12-million upgrade to the plant, the Portland Water District aims to reduce nitrogen in the effluent water by 20 to 40% within five years. That could prevent 500 to 1,000 pounds of nitrogen from getting into Casco Bay each day.

Nitrogen is found in sewage, animal waste, fertilizers, rainwater, snow melt, and air pollution from burning fossil fuels. Excess nitrogen in our coastal waters may lead to harmful algal blooms, slime-covered coves, and more acidic conditions, all of which stress our coastal critters.

Water District’s Director of Wastewater Services, worked diligently for nearly a year on an agreement to reduce nitrogen in treated wastewater from the East End sewage treatment plant. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection recently issued a five-year wastewater discharge permit for the plant that incorporates their recommendations. Friends of Casco Bay’s Ivy Frignoca and Portland Water District’s Scott Firmin forged an agreement that aims to significantly reduce nitrogen in the treated wastewater released into Casco Bay from Portland’s East End Wastewater Treatment Facility.

The Portland Water District plans to:

  • Work toward major reductions in nitrogen in the treated wastewater it releases into Casco Bay
  • Test nitrogen levels in its effluent water weekly to measure progress toward meeting the goal of a 20-40% reduction within five years
  • Collaborate with the City of Portland and other stakeholders in a coordinated effort to reduce nitrogen pollution from multiple sources

“We applaud the Portland Water District for its forward-thinking approach that may serve as a model for other Maine communities,” says Ivy. “We still need folks to pick up pet wastes and stop using fertilizers. Individual efforts help keep nitrogen pollution from getting into Casco Bay. What each of us does to help the Bay does make a difference!”

MOCA Partners

Working With . . . MOCA Partners

MOCA Partners
The Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership (MOCA) is asking – and answering – the hard questions: “Why is ocean acidification happening?” and “What can we do about it?”

Climate researchers have found that the ocean absorbs about 25% to 30% of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from smokestacks and tailpipes. When this excess carbon dioxide mixes with water, it can make the water more acidic. This is called ocean acidification.

More excess carbon dioxide can end up in coastal waters as a result of nitrogen pollution from fertilizers, stormwater runoff, and sewage. This nitrogen overdose stimulates a population explosion of tiny plants called phytoplankton. When these plants die and decay, bacteria consume oxygen and release carbon dioxide in bays and coves. This creates even more acidic conditions for coastal critters. This is called coastal acidification.

Coastal acidification is one more stressor for shellfish species already challenged by other impacts, such as predation by milky ribbon worms and gluttonous green crabs that flourish in warming waters. Red tides and other harmful algal blooms, exacerbated by nitrogen runoff, may close clam flats to shellfish harvesting for weeks or months.

In 2014, Friends of Casco Bay participated in the Maine Ocean Acidification Study Commission, which issued a report to the Legislature in January 2015, recommending many actions to confront this threat to our fisheries, including establishing an ocean and coastal acidification council. Efforts in 2015 to pass a law creating the council failed to garner government support.

Rather than letting a worthwhile idea die, Friends of Casco Bay, the Island Institute, and University of Maine/Maine Sea Grant formed the Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership (MOCA) to coordinate the efforts of government agencies, private organizations, and citizens. Since its first meeting in March 2016, MOCA has held two symposia, organized working groups, and met with coastal legislators.

Outreach events and coordinated water monitoring are planned for 2017.

What can you do about coastal acidification?

  • Eliminate the use of fertilizers on your property
  • Make sure your septic system is doing its job
  • Reduce carbon emissions by driving less
  • Support clean energy policies
  • Opt for meatless Mondays – or more. Eating vegan reduces greenhouse gases significantly
  • Find out more actions you can take at here.
Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca and Portland Water District Staff on Baykeeper Boat

A Major Step Toward a Cleaner Casco Bay

Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca and Portland Water District Staff on Baykeeper BoatExcess nitrogen in our coastal waters can lead to harmful algal blooms, slime-covered coves, and more acidic conditions, all of which stress our coastal critters. Where does it come from? Sewage, animal waste, fertilizers, rainwater, snowmelt, and air pollution.

What we flush down the toilets of 65,000 Portland residents, as well as what is flushed through visitor and commercial facilities, passes through the sewage treatment plant that the Portland Water District manages. That treated effluent is a major source of excess nitrogen to Casco Bay.

With a $12 million upgrade to the East End Wastewater Treatment Facility, the Portland Water District aims to reduce nitrogen in effluent water by 20-40% within five years. This effort may prevent 500 to 1,000 pounds of nitrogen from getting into Casco Bay each day.

Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca and Scott Firmin, Portland Water District’s Director of Wastewater Services, worked diligently for nearly a year on an agreement to reduce nitrogen in the treated wastewater from the East End wastewater treatment plant. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection incorporated their recommendations into a five-year wastewater discharge permit it recently issued for the East End facility.

The Portland Water District plans to:

  • Work toward major reductions in nitrogen in the treated wastewater it releases into Casco Bay
  • Test nitrogen levels in its effluent weekly to measure progress toward meeting the goal of a 20-40% reduction within five years
  • Collaborate with the City of Portland and other stakeholders in a coordinated effort to reduce nitrogen pollution from multiple sources

“We applaud the Portland Water District for its forward-thinking approach that may serve as a model for other Maine communities,” says Ivy. “But we still need folks to pick up pet wastes and stop using fertilizers. Those individual efforts help keep nitrogen pollution from getting into Casco Bay. What each of us does to help the Bay does make a difference!”

MOCA Partners

MOCA is on the Move

With increasing research showing that coastal acidification is a threat to Casco Bay, here’s what we’re doing about it.

The all-volunteer Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership (MOCA) has held two symposia, organized working groups, and met with coastal legislators, all in its first year.

Why do scientists and sea farmers worry about acidifying seawater? Studies by researcher Dr. Mark Green and oyster grower Bill Mook have found that increasing the acidity of seawater can stress sea creatures such as clams, oysters, and mussels. Some shellfish farmers in Maine have already begun storing seawater to use during times when stormwater runoff makes the water unsafe for developing oysters.

Climate researchers have found that the ocean absorbs over 25% of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by smokestacks and tailpipes. This is called ocean acidification. In addition, carbon dioxide ends up in coastal waters from nitrogen pollution from fertilizers, pet wastes, stormwater runoff, and sewage discharges. This nitrogen overdose stimulates a population explosion of tiny phytoplankton. When these plants die and decay in bays and coves, bacteria consume oxygen and release carbon dioxide. This creates even more acidic conditions for coastal critters. This is called coastal acidification.

Dr. Mark Green of St. Joseph’s College in Standish, Maine, is a leading researcher on the impact of coastal acidification on clams. He has been testing how baby clams respond to mud from clam flats along our coast, including Casco Bay. He calls clams the “canaries in the coal mine.” Nitrogen runoff, he asserts, is hampering the ability of clams and oysters to build and maintain their shells. Dr. Green found that clam spat and baby clams simply dissolve at levels of acidity found in some parts of Casco Bay today. He calls this unfortunate condition “death by dissolution.”

Dr. Green’s experiments in the lab inspired us to investigate conditions in Casco Bay. In 2011, we sampled the pH (acidity) of the mud on about 30 clam flats around Casco Bay. In 2012 and 3013, we returned to one of those clam flats to monitor conditions every two weeks across three seasons and varied tide cycles to get a better understanding of how natural fluctuations impacted pH. We also put baby clams (spat) into “clam condos” into a clam flat in Freeport, protected from green clams by screens. After one week and two weeks in the mud, we found significant pitting in their shells, indicating that the shells were dissolving.

Coastal Acidification is one more stressor for shellfish species that already are challenged by other climate change impacts, such as predation by gluttonous milky ribbon worms and green crabs which flourish in warming waters. Red tides or other harmful algal blooms may close clam flats to shellfish harvesting for weeks or months each year. The density and duration of these harmful bloom events may be exacerbated by nitrogen runoff, which provides the nutrients to nourish the red tide organisms.

 

What are we doing about coastal acidification?

 

The good news is that we can do something to fight back against coastal acidification caused by nitrogen pollution. Says Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca, “It’s wonderful to work with so many scientists, harvesters, and policy makers who understand this issue and are working on it before coastal acidification becomes insurmountable.”

 

One way is to find out what we know and what we need to know about coastal and ocean acidification. Friends of Casco Bay and others realized we need a concerted effort to fight the effects of ocean and coastal acidification. In 2014, we participated in the Maine Ocean Acidification Study Commission, which issued a report to the Legislature in January 2015, recommending many actions to confront this threat to our fisheries and marine ecology in general, including establishing an on-going ocean and coastal acidification council.

 

Friends of Casco Bay worked with the Island Institute and University of Maine/Maine Sea Grant to create the Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership (MOCA). MOCA volunteers partnership seek to:

  1. Implement recommendations of the Ocean Acidification Study Commission; and
  2. Coordinate the work of governmental agencies, private organizations, and citizens who are studying and implementing means to reduce the impacts of or help adapt to ocean and coastal acidification.

Here are some highlights of MOCA:

March 14, 2016

MOCA held its first meeting, attended by more than 30 scientists, policy makers, and harvesters.

 

June 29, 2016

MOCA hosted a day-long Ocean Acidification Symposium, attended by 110 people, including some of the state’s top researchers and policy makers. Scientists shared their field experiment data and compared notes.

 

November 16, 2016

MOCA hosted a second symposium focused on remediation and policy. More than 50 people gathered at the State House in Augusta to discuss the possibility of developing state/ federal water quality criteria related to coastal acidification. Ivy discussed how we might use existing regulatory tools to reduce nitrogen pollution that exacerbates coastal acidification. The participants formed subcommittees to create an action plan on next steps for confronting ocean acidification through research and legislation.

 

What’s next?

  • Education Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca is working with the MOCA Policy Subcommittee to help organize two MOCA symposia in 2017. They will educate interested citizens and decision makers on cutting-edge science and local and state policies that may be implemented to combat acidification
  • Uniform data collection is the goal of Friends of Casco Bay Research Associate Mike Doan and more than a dozen other scientists on the MOCA Monitoring Subcommittee. They will work together to coordinate and standardize monitoring equipment and procedures on data collection on acidification. This uniformity will provide better understanding of nitrogen inputs into coastal waters.

 

What can you do about coastal acidification?

  • Cut down or eliminate fertilizers on lawns, gardens, and farms.
  • Lobby for and support a town ordinance to limit the use of nitrogen-rich fertilizers.
  • Reduce rainwater runoff and improve sewage treatment.
  • Make sure septic systems are doing their job.
  • Join and/or volunteer with organizations to monitor coastal waters and educate the public.
  • Reduce carbon emissions by driving less or driving a less polluting vehicle
  • Support clean energy production such as solar and wind power
  • Support clean energy policies such as RGGI and the Clean Power Plan
Pile of expired flares

A bill with flair makes its way through the Maine Legislature

Pile of expired flares

Last summer, Representative Jay McCreight* received a question from a local lobsterman about what to do with a barn full of expired marine flares or “Visual Distress Signals.” She called Friends of Casco Bay to ask about the potential environmental impacts from flares. Citizen Stewards Coordinator Peter Milholland and Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca began looking into the issue, with the help of University of New England student interns Iliana Flefel and Grayson Szczepaniak.

The United States Coast Guard requires marine vessels greater than 16 feet in length to carry at least three flares to use in the event of an emergency. These emergency flares expire within 42 months from date of manufacture and must be replaced.

This has led mariners to stockpile expired flares, often for years, trying to figure out how to get rid of them. Right now, there are no good options for Maine boaters to dispose of expired flares, which can still be explosive. Boaters have tried soaking expired flares in a bucket of water, shooting off flares at sea (especially on the Fourth of July), or throwing them in the trash. None of these practices are acceptable because pyrotechnic flares are classified as “hazardous wastes.”

Flares contain toxic chemicals that may harm human and marine life. Potassium perchlorate interferes with thyroid function, which regulates a person’s metabolism, including heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. Strontium may create toxic gases when burned. Sulfur has been shown to contribute to more acidic conditions in the ocean.

We learned that the only safe way to dispose of expired flares is by incineration at high temperature. Fortunately, the State Fire Marshall’s office has an EPA-approved mobile incinerator that can be used for this purpose, which was originally purchased to incinerate fireworks.

To authorize the State Fire Marshall’s office to design a program to collect and incinerate expired flares, Representative McCreight has introduced a bill to the 128th Maine Legislature: LD 252 An Act To Improve Safety in the Disposal of Expired Flares.

On March 13, Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca testified before the Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety in support of the bill.

Should LD 252 continue to move through the legislative process, we may suggest you contact your legislators to support the bill.

 

* The State Representative for District 51, which includes Harpswell, West Bath, and part of Brunswick

Mac Richardson Nabbing Nitrogen Photo credit: Dave Dostie

Did we Nab Nitrogen? We sure did!

Mike Doan at Friends of Casco Bay’s Annual Members Meeting. Photo credit: Kevin Morris.
Mike Doan at Friends of Casco Bay’s Annual Members Meeting. Photo credit: Kevin Morris.

On January 24, 2017, Research Associate Mike Doan stood before an audience of volunteers and supporters at Friends of Casco Bay’s Annual Members Meeting. He reminded them, “A year ago at this volunteer celebration, we proposed the idea of Nabbing Nitrogen, to get people involved in water quality monitoring on one day, at one moment in time. If we’d recruited 50 volunteers, we would have considered it a success. More than 170 people signed up to volunteer to sample for nitrogen!”

Volunteers lined docks and other access points to Nab Nitrogen on Sunday, July 10, 2016. Photo credit Dave Dostie.
Volunteers lined docks and other access points to Nab Nitrogen on Sunday, July 10, 2016. Photo credit Dave Dostie.

Our Nabbing Nitrogen event became a flash mob, where volunteers scooped up jars of seawater at precisely 10:10 a.m. on July 10, 2016. The weather was awful, so we had to cancel plans for boaters to sample out on the water. Though limited to land-based sites, volunteers would not be deterred. They lined the shoreline of Portland and South Portland on both sides of the Fore River. Mike championed, “It was the volunteers and their enthusiasm and energy, despite the rain, that made the event such a success.”

Lindsay Wold and Chaz Wilcoxen with their Nabbing Nitrogen sample
Lindsay Wold and Chaz Wilcoxen with their Nabbing Nitrogen sample

On that particular morning, we experienced a heavy rain that followed a long dry spell. This made for ideal conditions for collecting data on a storm event. We collected and analyzed 90 samples, which Mike used to construct a map of nitrogen levels around Portland Harbor at this one point in time. He wasn’t surprised to find that nitrogen levels were higher than normal.

Why do we worry about too much nitrogen in Casco Bay?
Nitrogen is an essential plant nutrient, critical for growing. In the ocean, nitrogen nurtures plant growth, from single-celled phytoplankton to large seaweeds. But too much nitrogen triggers excessive algae growth that can turn the Bay green. When the plants die, decomposing bacteria remove the oxygen from the water and release carbon dioxide, making the water more acidic.

Over the last 100 years, the amount of nitrogen available for plant growth has more than doubled, thanks to the invention of commercial fertilizers and the increase in the burning of fossil fuels. Human sewage, air pollution, and rainwater washing fertilizers and animal wastes off yards and farms add excess nitrogen to our coastal waters.

Mike said, “Do you remember last summer, when we saw large mats of green algae in Back Cove in Portland and Mill Cove in South Portland? Those carpets of ‘green slime’ smothered anything trying to live underneath them. In South Portland, we also found that the mud beneath the algal mats was highly acidic.”

Too much nitrogen in the water can impact the nursery of the sea. “Phytoplankton and seaweeds can make the water murky, limiting sunlight to eelgrass,” explained Mike. “We are fortunate that Casco Bay has a lot of eelgrass. Eelgrass is our ‘rain forest.’ It serves a number of purposes: it holds sediments in place, helping to prevent erosion, dampens wave action, which protects the shoreline, and most importantly, provides hiding places for juvenile marine animals.”

Mac Richardson Nabbing Nitrogen Photo credit: Dave Dostie
Mac Richardson Nabbing Nitrogen
Photo credit: Dave Dostie

We will meet with sewage treatment plant operators and stormwater managers to discuss what all the data means.

Already, with the help of our volunteers and great media coverage of our event, people know that there is a lot we each can do to reduce the flow of nitrogen into the Bay. Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca told the audience at our Annual Meeting that they can help by:

  • Not using fertilizer on their yards and practicing BayScaping to minimize the need for lawn chemicals
  • Keep rainwater from running off our driveways and yards
  • Replacing lawns with rain gardens or permeable pavement
  • Support efforts by local municipalities to reduce nitrogen-laden sewage overflows into the Bay
  • Support our work with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to set responsible limits on nitrogen discharges into coastal waters
Mac Richardson Nabbing Nitrogen
Mac Richardson Nabbing Nitrogen
Photo credit: Dave Dostie

WMTW Meteorologist Sarah Long was one of the many volunteers that participated in this sampling event. You can see her coverage of the event here: http://www.wmtw.com/article/citizen-scientists-help-keep-casco-bay-healthy/8972719.