Home » Baykeeping » Nitrogen

Category: Nitrogen

July 26—The Day the Poop Hit the Bay

Out and About with the Casco Baykeeper

On July 26, 1.69 million gallons of partially-treated wastewater overflowed from Portland’s East End Sewage Treatment Facility into Casco Bay. This story made the news and captured our attention. That same day, 9.85 million gallons of combined sewer overflows (CSOs), containing raw sewage and toxic chemicals, also entered the Bay. Not a single news outlet reported that fact.

So while swimmers—especially those preparing for the Peaks to Portland Swim—worried about the impact of the partially-treated discharge from the East End plant (wastewater that had already had solids removed and been chlorinated to kill bacteria), we worried about the close to 10 million gallons of a far more toxic slurry that entered the Bay.

On that day, the combined sewer overflow at Mackworth Street discharged 824,000 gallons of untreated water and the CSO at Dartmouth Street discharged 833,000 gallons into Back Cove. The India Street CSO discharged 415,000 gallons and the Long Wharf CSO released 563,000 gallons of untreated water into Portland Harbor.

Polluted water gushes into Casco Bay from a combined sewer overflow beneath Portland’s busy waterfront.
Photo credit: Dave Laliberte

What is a Combined Sewer Overflow?
Combined sewer systems are relics of the past that we are still using today. In Portland and many cities across the county, these systems were designed to collect—and combine— sewage and stormwater in the same pipes. Most of the time, the pipes transport all the collected wastewater to a sewage treatment plant, where it is treated and then discharged into a body of water. But when we experience heavy rains or snowmelt, the runoff entering the system exceeds the capacity of the pipes. When the pipes fill to certain levels, these antiquated systems are designed to dump a mix of stormwater, untreated waste, toxic materials, and debris directly into the ocean, or into nearby streams and rivers that flow into the Bay.
 
 
 

These periodic discharges are far more concerning to us than a one-time breach at the East End facility. For over 25 years, Friends of Casco Bay has been pushing the City to eliminate these combined sewer overflows. We are very supportive of Portland’s current work to separate combined pipes, build storage tanks, and eliminate CSOs. Over the next two years, as Casco Baykeeper, I will represent Friends of Casco Bay as a member of the stakeholder team that helps shepherd a process called integrated planning, which will enable the City to meet these objectives efficiently and in ways that best improve water quality.

The Environmental Protection Agency created the integrated planning approach to help municipalities such as Portland meet multiple Clean Water Act requirements by identifying efficiencies from separate wastewater and stormwater programs and sequencing investments so that the highest priority projects come first. This approach can also lead to more sustainable and comprehensive solutions, such as green infrastructure, that improve water quality and provide multiple benefits that enhance community vitality.

We will continue to participate, as we have for over 25 years, to help ensure that these combined efforts achieve more effective and timely improvements in water quality in Casco Bay.

 

What you can do to reduce stormwater and sewage pollution

  • Support communities’ efforts to upgrade their wastewater and stormwater systems.
  • Employ “green solutions” to reduce stormwater runoff from our own properties:
    • install permeable pavement on driveways and patios, so water percolates into the soil below
    • reduce the size of the lawn; plant shrubs and ground cover, which hold water better then turf
    • use rain barrels to catch runoff from roofs
    • Boaters should use shoreside bathroom facilities or pumpout services to keep raw sewage out of the Bay.
      Our pumpout boat operates from Memorial Day to Halloween. Contact pumpout [at] cascobay [dot] org.

Tending Portland’s public spaces without pesticides

On July 1, Portland’s Pesticide Use Ordinance goes into effect for public properties. (In January, 2019, restrictions on applying synthetic pesticides on private property will go into effect.)

We asked City Arborist Jeff Tarling how the Parks Department may manage the City’s 721 acres of parks, playgrounds, trails, fields, and cemeteries differently. “This ordinance gives our staff opportunities to manage nature respectfully, to preserve and adapt to nature, rather than trying to control it.” Mowing high, replacing lawn with meadow, and planting native shrubs and trees are actions Jeff recommends for public and private properties.


Removing invasive plants mechanically, not chemically, is a hands-on approach Jeff endorses. Jeff showed Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell a long row of native trees and shrubs that students from King Middle School had just planted as a coastal buffer along the Back Cove parking lot. As he talked, he couldn’t resist pulling out invasive bittersweet that was overtaking other vegetation along the path.

Jeff explained that the Parks Department has assembled a “watch list” of invasive plants in their parks, which they plan to remove by hand over time, not by spraying with pesticides.

Cathy was a member of the task force that helped to shape the pesticide ordinance. She says, “As the whole community becomes more aware of the need to reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers, it will reduce the likelihood that lawn chemicals will move off the landscape and into the Bay.”

Out and About with the Casco Baykeeper

Out and About with the Casco Baykeeper

As always, Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca has been on the move, working across Casco Bay, the state—and the nation—on efforts to protect the environmental health of Casco Bay.

A peek into her appointment calendar shows some of the highlights so far this year, as she continued to track Legislative issues and to comment on proposed wastewater and stormwater discharge permits that the Department of Environmental Protection issues to municipalities.

January

I became coordinator of the Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership (MOCA) for 2018.

I will help coordinate research and advocacy on ocean acidification with a strong statewide network of policy makers, fishermen, shellfish growers, and scientists. This year-long role supports our work examining coastal acidification and excess nitrogen.

February

I invited Portland’s Water Resources Manager, Nancy Gallinaro, and Portland Water District’s Director of Wastewater Services, Scott Firmin, to travel with me to meet the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 1 Administrator, Alexandra Dapolito Dunn. We highlighted our joint efforts to reduce nitrogen pollution, combined sewer overflows, and stormwater pollution to Casco Bay. I shared our data showing the impacts of climate change on Casco Bay.

Our Casco Baykeeper meets EPA Administrator Alex Dunn.

 

Administrator Dunn accepted our invitation to come to Maine in June to attend a meeting of the Maine Nutrient Council, a group convened by Casco Bay Estuary Partnership. Afterward, Administrator Dunn will tour the Bay on our Baykeeper boat, a great opportunity for a close-up view of issues that threaten the water quality of Casco Bay.

March

Senator Angus King greets fellow Mainers Bill Mook, Hattie Train, Ivy Frignoca, and Richard Nelson.

I traveled to Washington, DC, at the invitation of Ocean Conservancy, to meet with our Congressional delegation and ask for full funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the EPA. The measures we pressed for passed in the omnibus budget!

Back in Maine, I submitted comments opposing offshore drilling and then attended a meeting hosted by the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, to voice Friends of Casco Bay’s opposition to offshore drilling. I supported a resolve that was passed unanimously by our state legislature expressing its opposition to offshore drilling.

April

I testified at a public hearing as we worked to swiftly defeat a bill that would have practically eliminated the ability of municipalities to pass pesticide ordinances. If you contacted legislators after receiving our email alert about this issue, thank you! The bill was defeated!

I traveled to New Hampshire to attend a meeting of experts concerned about the rise in harmful algal blooms throughout the region, so we could learn more about new species appearing in Casco Bay.

May

I attended a meeting in West Bath, which drew together people who live and work along the New Meadows River, to discuss how expanding efforts in aquaculture may figure into the many uses of the estuary.

Research Associate Mike Doan gave Kate Simpson and Kayla McMurray, staffers for Senator Susan Collins, a ride to our Continuous Monitoring Station in Yarmouth. I met them at our “Cage of Science” as we demonstrated how we use technology to monitor the Bay hourly, 365 days a year. We explained that though we do not receive funding directly from the EPA, the Agency has a vital role in advising state regulators on strategies to reduce pollution, funding other research, and enforcing the Clean Water Act. This work helps us all protect the environmental health of Casco Bay.

June

The Portland Water District (PWD) hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the completion of the massive, $12 million project that upgraded the aeration system at the East End Wastewater Treatment Facility. This improvement could ultimately reduce nitrogen in the treated sewage released into the Bay by up to 1000 lbs. a day! PWD’s General Manager Carrie Lewis recognized our contribution “to understanding the issues affecting Casco Bay and make positive contributions towards collaborative solutions.”

The Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership (MOCA) is a volunteer partnership that seeks to coordinate the work of governmental agencies and private organizations and citizens who are studying and implementing means to reduce the impacts of or help adapt to ocean and coastal acidification.

The Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership (MOCA) is a volunteer partnership that seeks to coordinate the work of governmental agencies and private organizations and citizens who are studying and implementing means to reduce the impacts of or help adapt to ocean and coastal acidification.

With my colleagues in the MOCA Partnership, I hosted a workshop for nearly 60 scientists, harvesters, policy makers, and advocates on What We Know about Ocean Acidification and Maine’s Lobsters. The event at Bowdoin College featured current research on the effects of climate change on lobsters and emphasized the need for ecosystem-level, long-term studies.

As the year progresses, I look forward to continuing to keep you updated on the biggest issues affecting the health of the waters we all love.

Cathy Ramsdell Interview

Protecting the Bay from Pesticides

Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell served for nearly a year on a task force to help the city develop the ordinance.

We are delighted to share that in January 2018, the City of Portland passed one of the strongest ordinances in the state to restrict pesticide use.

Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell served for nearly a year on a task force to help the city develop the ordinance. She often found herself a fulcrum of the group, reminding everyone of their common purpose to protect Casco Bay. The ordinance is similar to one that South Portland passed in 2016, also thanks in part to Friends of Casco Bay’s advocacy. While state and federal authorities have been slow to protect our waters from these toxic chemicals, we are heartened to see local communities take action.

Why restricting pesticide use is important for the health of the Bay: We have long been concerned about the possible impacts of lawn chemicals—pesticides and fertilizers—on the environmental health of Casco Bay. Our monitoring efforts revealed that the lawn chemicals we are putting on yards can end up in the Bay. Between 2001 and 2009, we collected rain water flowing into the Bay and analyzed the samples for a suite of pesticides. Lab results identified 9 different pesticides in 14 locations all around the Bay. Pesticides do not belong in the Bay, as they have the potential to harm lobsters, fish, and vital habitat.

 

Your eyes on the Bay–new directions in citizen science

Casco Bay, like ocean waters around the world, is changing and changing quickly. We are evolving our water quality monitoring to stay on top of the science of how the Bay may be changing.

At our Volunteer Appreciation Celebration this week [click here for photos!], we announced that we are launching two pilot projects that will enable our volunteer citizen scientists to use new technologies to increase our knowledge of the changing conditions around Casco Bay.

We rely on people all around the Bay to relay to us changes they are observing. Our new initiatives are designed to engage more volunteer citizen scientists in collecting data and sharing their observations of a changing Casco Bay.

Initiative #1: Measuring the Color and Clarity of Casco Bay

We are launching a pilot program to enlist citizen scientists to help us measure the color and clarity of our waters.

For more than a century, marine scientists have used the Forel-Ule color scale to document the color of oceans and lakes. People often consider blue water to indicate healthy oceans and dirty-brown water to indicate polluted water. In fact, scientists attest to color being an excellent indicator of what is happening in our oceans.

We are putting a modern spin on an old way of assessing water quality. We will train volunteers to use a specific smartphone app, as well as a Secchi disk. On tide-specific days and times, we will ask volunteers all around the Bay to use the app to take a photo of the water against the Secchi disk. Each volunteer will then compare the color of the water to an electronic version of the Forel-Ule scale built into the app. The protocols for this data collection are easy to follow, and the data helps address a question we often hear: “How is the Bay changing?”

We are launching this initiative because our colleagues at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences tell us that the waters of the Gulf of Maine have become increasingly yellow over the last century. We have seen heavy rains stain the surface waters of Casco Bay the color of tea. There is a lot of data on color and clarity for the Gulf of Maine, but not much has been collected in our nearshore areas.

Initiative #2: ON Casco Bay: Observing Network for Casco Bay

In 2016 and 2017, we saw a concerning increase in the number and extent of nuisance and harmful algal blooms in Casco Bay. Large mats of algae covered tidal flats, smothering animals underneath the mats, preventing juvenile clams from settling, and increasing the acidity of the sediment.

This year, we want to be on the lookout for green slime outbreaks, and Casco Bay needs more eyes looking out for its health! Friends of Casco Bay staff cannot be everywhere.

Photograph by Kevin Morris

We will enlist volunteers to help us observe and keep track of nuisance outbreaks. To do that, volunteers simply need a smartphone and a commitment to keep their eyes focused on our changing Bay.

We will train volunteers to use an innovative smartphone app that will enable them to document, catalogue, organize, and share their observations of the Bay. This information will be useful in our collaborations with other scientists, in expanding our community engagement by sharing observations on social media, and in our advocacy, to illustrate to regulators, legislators, and other policy makers changes happening around the Bay .

As this initiative evolves, we may ask volunteers to report any exciting, interesting or odd observations — from whales, osprey nests, or seals, to declines in eelgrass or mussel beds, clam die offs, jellyfish sightings, fish kills, invasive species outbreaks — you get the idea.

Stay Tuned

Be on the lookout for announcements regarding our training sessions on these pilot projects. We know that our longtime water quality monitors are eager to embark on a new adventure with us. We expect many new volunteers, who did not have the time to commit to our earlier water quality monitoring program, will jump aboard on one or both of these new efforts.

More eyes on the water and more advocates for its health are exactly what Casco Bay needs! In our experience, our volunteers are some of the most outspoken and well-spoken members of our community. We look forward to engaging more of you than ever. The commitment of volunteers will send ripple effects throughout towns around the Bay.

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!”

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.

 

The Double Whammy—Climate Change and Nitrogen Pollution

Photo by Kevin Morris

Nearly everyone has heard of the threat of global warming—as more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, the planet’s climate is changing. Not all carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere stays there; scientists estimate that nearly a third is absorbed by the oceans. As marine water absorbs this carbon dioxide, it forms carbonic acid, making the oceans more acidic. Scientists have discovered that over the past two hundred years, the average pH of the ocean has dropped 0.1 pH units. This means that the world’s oceans have become 30% more acidic than they were before the start of the Industrial Revolution. As more and more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, the pH of the oceans continues to decline. This is known as Ocean Acidification.

Casco Bay suffers from a double whammy of carbon dioxide resulting from human activities. First, there are the effects on our local waters from Ocean Acidification. But we are finding excess nitrogen coming from onshore sources, namely polluted rainwater running off fertilized lawns and city streets, emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes, and sewage discharges, all of which send an overdose of nitrogen into our coastal waters. This nitrogen bonanza can stimulate the growth of large blooms of algae, beyond what animals in the ecosystem can consume. Much of these blooms end up dying and settling on the mud. This organic material decomposes; the bacteria responsible for decomposition respire during this process, removing oxygen and adding carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide and seawater combine to form carbonic acid, lowering the pH of our water and our clam flats. This is called Coastal Acidification.

As more nitrogen pollution enters the Bay, more algae are produced, resulting in more decomposition, which adds more carbon dioxide to the water and sediments, lowering pH. This increased acidity can mean dissolution and death for young clams and other shellfish.

 

We See a Disturbing Trend in the pH of Bottom Water

At our sentinel sites over the past decade, pH has been trending in the wrong direction.
y = -0.01x + 36.6, R2 = 0.39*
*The trend lines of the graphs throughout this report illustrate the pattern of the data. The equation (y=) describes the trend line that best fits the data. The R2 value tells us how well the data fit around the trend line, indicating the reliability of the line.

Measurements at our sentinel sites show a decline in the pH of the bottom water. The points on the graph to the right show annual mean pH for each of thirteen years and illustrate high variability; the dots bounce all over the graph. While this is not surprising, given that coastal systems everywhere exhibit high variability, we did not expect to see this statistically significant downward trend in pH, with the overall slope of the line dropping 0.014 pH units per year over the thirteen-year period. This is a serious and disturbing trend.

Read the next section of the report Nitrogen—Can’t Live Without It, Can’t Live With Too Much of It