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Category: Nitrogen Pollution

Nab Data Suggest Land-Based Sources Contribute to Nitrogen Pollution

166 volunteers collected water samples from Portland Harbor to help measure and address nitrogen pollution. Here is what we found.

It was a sweltering summer morning on August 7, 2022 when 166 volunteers descended on Portland Harbor to collect water samples for nitrogen analysis.

After sending the 178 samples collected that day to the University of Maine Darling Marine Center Laboratory for analysis, the results are in.

Data from the Nab show nitrogen levels are generally highest near the shores of Portland Harbor, suggesting land-based sources contribute to nitrogen pollution. Each dot on the map represents one water sample. The dots are color coded based on the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s nitrogen advisory thresholds. Green dots show healthy levels of nitrogen. Yellow dots show nitrogen levels that can harm eelgrass habitat. Red dots show nitrogen levels that can lead to low amounts of oxygen in Casco Bay, which can lower water quality and harm marine life.

The Nab data show nitrogen concentrations in Portland Harbor are generally highest near the shore. Lower concentrations of nitrogen are often observed in samples collected by boat from the mouth of the harbor and the middle of the harbor channel. These data suggest that land-based sources of excess nitrogen – a stormwater outfall, for example – enter the harbor at the shoreline and diffuse as water circulates with the tides.

“Seeing the data all together is remarkable,” says Staff Scientist Mike Doan. “Having so many samples collected at once gives us a robust image of nitrogen conditions in the harbor. Our incredible volunteers made this happen.” Mike adds that it is important to keep in mind that these data represent a snapshot of nitrogen conditions in the Bay’s dynamic ecosystem.

Mike compared data collected this summer to the data collected at our first Nab in 2016. The 2016 data also show nitrogen concentrations are highest near the shore. However, a key difference between the two Nabs was the weather.

The 2016 Nab coincided with a large storm. In fact, it was still raining when water samples were collected. Conversely, the 2022 Nab happened on a hot day during a summer drought.

Alicia Richards, Friends of Casco Bay’s 2022 Summer Intern, scoops water into a sample jar at Nabbing Nitrogen in August. 166 volunteers collected water samples that day from the shores of Portland, South Portland, surrounding islands, and by boat in Portland Harbor. The Nab focused on the harbor because it is showing signs of stress from nitrogen pollution.

“If land-based sources of nitrogen are affecting the harbor, we would expect nitrogen levels near the shore to be higher after a rainstorm than during a drought, and that is generally what we saw,” says Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca. “The next step is to use these data to see if there are specific sources of nitrogen around the harbor that can be addressed and to help set limits in Clean Water Act permits that decrease nitrogen discharges to healthy amounts.”

Excess nitrogen can come from many sources. Sometimes the source is easy to identify because it comes from a specific spot, like a wastewater treatment plant, stormwater outfall, or combined sewer overflow discharge. Other sources can be more difficult to identify because they are picked up by stormwater that sheets off the land when it rains. These sources can include fertilizers, car exhaust, pet waste, and more.

Data from the Nab are being used to help the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) develop nitrogen criteria for Casco Bay. These criteria will describe the levels of nitrogen that water bodies can safely absorb. They will also influence nitrogen discharge limits in Clean Water Act permits. Angela Brewer, who leads the marine unit of the Bureau of Water Quality at DEP, is excited to have these data.

“The Nab data provide a unique perspective that is essential to understanding the nitrogen dynamics in Portland area surface waters,” says Angela. “This perspective is only possible with Friends of Casco Bay’s extensive and dedicated volunteer network.”

Thank you to the volunteers who collected water samples with us at Nabbing Nitrogen, and to Allagash Brewing Company and our members for funding for this community science event. You made this work possible.

Why Does Nitrogen Matter?

Eelgrass meadows in Casco Bay declined in size by 54 percent between 2018-2022, a loss described as “staggering” by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in a January 2023 report. Many factors can contribute to loss of eelgrass. Nitrogen pollution is one of them, and unlike other contributing factors such as warming water temperatures, the amount of nitrogen in the Bay can be controlled at a local level. Photo credit: Steve Karpiak

Nitrogen is naturally found in marine waters. A healthy amount of nitrogen fertilizes algal blooms that form the base of the food chain in Casco Bay. But excess nitrogen from human sources such as wastewater, fertilizers, stormwater, and air pollution can cause excessive algal growth that harms the health of the marine environment. Some of the impacts of nitrogen pollution include degrading eelgrass beds (which are critical fish nursery habitat), exacerbating coastal acidification, lowering oxygen levels, and shutting down shellfisheries.

Portland’s Landcare Ordinance Will Help the Bay

In great news for Casco Bay, the Portland City Council voted unanimously to limit the use of fertilizers in Maine’s largest city. On September 19, the council amended the city’s pesticide ordinance to become a landcare ordinance, which now includes policies that will:

  • Prohibit the application of fertilizers within 75 feet of a water body, which includes Casco Bay and the streams that flow into it.
  • Prohibit the application of fertilizers unless a soil test indicates a need for it.
  • Prohibit the application of fertilizers on frozen ground.
  • Limit the quantity and frequency of fertilizer application to performance turf.

These common sense policies are very similar to those found in South Portland’s fertilizer ordinance which was adopted in 2020. Friends of Casco Bay’s former Executive Director, Cathy Ramsdell, served on the committee that developed that ordinance. Limiting the use of fertilizers is not only good for soil health, but it is also great for the Bay.

In Casco Bay, excess nitrogen from fertilizers can cause excessive algal growth that can reduce water clarity, prevent juvenile clams from settling, and suffocate marine life that lives in mudflats. When an algal bloom dies off, its decomposition can lower oxygen levels and contribute to coastal acidification.

We applaud the City of Portland for taking action on this important issue and thank all the Portland residents who expressed their support for the landcare ordinance. Reducing fertilizer use makes a big difference for the health of Casco Bay.

More Than 165 Volunteers Get Their Hands Wet for Casco Bay

Friends of Casco Bay volunteers took part in Nabbing Nitrogen, a Clean Water Act day of action, collecting 178 water samples to help address nitrogen pollution

Alicia Richards, Friends of Casco Bay’s 2022 summer intern, scoops water into a sample jar at Nabbing Nitrogen. Samples collected at the Nab will improve our overall understanding of how much excess nitrogen is coming from various sources around the Bay.

More than 165 volunteers from 26 communities across the Casco Bay region converged on Portland Harbor on Sunday morning, August 7, as part of a major community science event called Nabbing Nitrogen. Friends of Casco Bay organized the Nab to collect much needed data on sources of nitrogen pollution in the Harbor. 

“Nitrogen pollution is a real threat to the health of Casco Bay,” says Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca. “We know that it comes from many different sources, such as urban streams, stormwater outfalls, combined sewer overflows, and wastewater treatment plants. By Nabbing Nitrogen, we can better understand how much these various sources are contributing to nitrogen pollution overall, and find solutions to address them.” 

At precisely 9:30 a.m., volunteers scooped water into sample jars from the shores of Portland and South Portland, as well as the harbor-facing shores of Peaks Island, Cushing Island, and Little Diamond Island. More than 50 volunteers collected water samples by boat and kayak in the harbor. Once collected, water samples were promptly put on ice to preserve sample quality before being sent to a laboratory for total nitrogen analysis. 

A chart of Portland Harbor shows the locations where Nabbing Nitrogen volunteers collected 178 water samples. Data from these samples will be used by Friends of Casco Bay to address nitrogen pollution.

For volunteer Nicole Favreau and her 8-year-old son, taking part in the Nab was a way to help care for the waters they both love. “My son is just beginning his obsession with fishing and he already understands that fish need healthy habitats to survive. Protecting this important estuary where he hopes to land the state’s largest striper someday is a priority for him,” says Nicole. “For us, the Nab was a great time to think about how we were just a small part of a big picture, helping to keep Casco Bay healthy.”

Friends of Casco Bay organized Nabbing Nitrogen as a day of action in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act. The effort focused on Portland Harbor because it is showing signs of stress from nitrogen pollution. The data will be used to create a detailed map of nitrogen levels across the harbor, an exciting prospect for Staff Scientist Mike Doan.

“Having so many samples collected at the same moment will give us a comprehensive look at the levels of nitrogen pollution in the harbor,” says Mike. “We’re grateful to the volunteers who stepped up to help. The Nab was not a project our staff could do alone, it required scores of people working together.” 

Some algal blooms are so thick that they can smother mudflats and suffocate the marine life that lives in them. Josh Clukey, our 2016 summer intern, holds a clump of algae from a dense bloom in Mill Cove, South Portland.

The data from the Nab will support Friends of Casco Bay’s work with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to set nitrogen criteria for the state. These criteria will describe the levels of nitrogen that water bodies can safely absorb. They will also influence nitrogen discharge limits in Clean Water Act permits.  

Friends of Casco Bay Executive Director, Will Everitt, says that Nabbing Nitrogen showed the strength of our community. “For so many of us, Casco Bay is home. We understand that the health of the Bay and the health of our communities are intimately connected,” says Will. “In the age of climate change and warming waters, these Friends of the Bay showed that we are ready to help protect the health of the coastal waters that sustain us all.” 

Laboratory results from the Nab are expected in the coming months. We will keep you updated on the analysis of the data and our work to reduce nitrogen pollution moving forward. 

Why Does Nitrogen Matter?

Nitrogen is naturally found in marine waters. A healthy amount of nitrogen fertilizes algal blooms that form the base of the food chain in Casco Bay. But excess nitrogen from human sources such as wastewater, fertilizers, stormwater, and air pollution can cause excessive algal growth that harms the health of the marine environment. Some of the impacts of nitrogen pollution include shutting down shellfisheries, degrading eelgrass beds (which are critical fish nursery habitat), exacerbating coastal acidification, and lowering oxygen levels.

Nabbing Nitrogen; Preparing for the Nab

Detailed instructions for collecting your water sample and tide times to visit your sampling site

Nabbing Nitrogen is relatively easy. Once you are at your sampling site and are at the water’s edge (on a dock, rock, float, or other durable surface), 

Please note: it is important that you collect your sample from a boat, or a dock, rock, float. This allows you to reach into the water without touching the bottom. DO NOT wade into the water to collect your sample. DO NOT allow your boat to touch the bottom. Any bottom sediments disturbed can contaminate your sample.

How to collect your Nabbing Nitrogen water sample 

1. With the cap on, completely submerge your sampling jar. Then unscrew the cap while the jar is completely below the surface, and let the jar fill with water. Keep the jar submerged as you put the cap back on. This reduces contamination by debris on the water’s surface.

2. Remove your capped sample jar from the water. Take off the cap and pour off excess water until the water is approximately level with the top of the label on your sampling jar. Put the cap back on and make sure it is tightened securely.

3. Use your smartphone, if you have one, to take a photo of your sample bottle. Be sure to include your full site ID (written on the bottle) in your photo.

4. Submit the location of your sampling site.
Prefered method: Use the Water Reporter app on your smartphone. Start by opening it. ( If you need to install the Water Reporter app and set it up, follow these instructions.)
Tap the blue circle icon with the “pencil” symbol at the bottom of the screen. It will bring you to the “Start Post” page.
There are 5 steps to submitting your location and site ID in Water Reporter. See a visual of each step below.

  • A. Recording your location correctly in the app is critical to the success of the Nab. The map will automatically zoom in to your location, as long as “location services” is turned on (the first time you use the app, it asks permission to collect your location data). You can move the “drag me” pin manually to adjust, if needed.
  • B. Click the box titled “Add an observation or two”, located below the map. A new, mostly blank screen opens. Type “#nabbingnitrogen”.
  • C. Click the camera icon. Choose “Photo Library” and click the image of your sample bottle. Then, select “Add” in the upper right-hand corner.
  • D. Share your post with us to make sure it displays on our data map. Tap the small green circle next to “Friends of Casco Bay”. You will know you clicked the circle because it will fill in.
  • E. Review and submit your post. Review all of the details to ensure it is complete and accurate.
    Click the checkmark in the upper right-hand corner to complete and save your post. If you have good data service, you will immediately see the post. Note: All times recorded on the map are in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).

Alternative method: Complete your data sheet by: marking an “X” on where you took your sample on the map of your sample site.

5. Return your sample jar (filled with your water sample) to your assigned Nabbing Kit Pick-Up/Drop-Off Location.

A visual guide to submitting your location and full site ID

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Optional: times to visit your sampling site before the Nab

It is optional to visit your sampling site ahead of the Nab on 8/7 to familiarize yourself with your sampling site. If you choose to visit your site before the Nab, be sure to visit at one of the times below because the Nab will occur during similar tide conditions.

7/31 4:15 p.m.

8/1 11:45 a.m.

8/1 5:15 p.m.

8/2 12:30 p.m.

8/2 5:45 p.m.

8/3 6:15 a.m.

8/3 1:15 p.m.

8/3 6:45 p.m.

8/4 6:45 a.m.

8/4 1:45 p.m.

8/4 7:30 p.m.

8/5 7:30 a.m.

8/5 2:30 p.m.

8/6 8:30 a.m.

8/6 3:15 p.m.

No Poop in the Bay: Friends of Casco Bay Relaunches Pumpout Program

Friends of Casco Bay’s new Pumpout Coordinator Chris Gilday aboard their pumpout vessel, Headmaster.

We are excited to announce that we are relaunching our Pumpout Program. After a 2-year hiatus, our pumpout vessel, Headmaster, is back in the water and is being captained by our newest staff member, Pumpout Coordinator Chris Gilday.

“After working as a commercial fisherman for decades, I know firsthand how much clean marine water matters,” says Chris. “Keeping the water free of sewage by getting a pumpout is one easy thing boaters can do to ensure the Bay stays healthy.”

Casco Bay is a federally-designated No Discharge Area, making it illegal for any boat — from cruise ships to pleasure crafts — to discharge raw or partially treated sewage into the Bay. Friends of Casco Bay’s pumpout service offers an easy way for boat owners to comply with this law, and has helped to keep over 254,000 gallons of sewage out of Casco Bay since it was launched in 1995.

“The combined effects of pumpouts, the Clean Water Act, and the No Discharge Area have transformed Casco Bay,” said Friends of Casco Bay’s executive director, Will Everitt. “Just 50 years ago, sailing magazines warned tourists to avoid the Bay. Today our waters are far cleaner. As boaters, we all must continue to do our part to keep the Bay clean and healthy for everyone.”

Thousands of boats pass through and anchor in Casco Bay every summer. The past two summers in particular have seen a dramatic increase in the number of recreational boats on the Bay. With more people on the water, it is more important than ever for boaters to keep their sewage out of the Bay, in addition to other best practices like avoiding fuel spills at the gas pump, preventing trash and litter from entering the water, and proper disposal of marine flares. Boaters can learn more about these best practices at cascobay.org/boating.

“Getting a pumpout is one of the best things boaters can do,” said Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca. “It keeps the Bay free from bacteria and sewage that foul our waters and make them unsafe for recreation, fishing, and wildlife. With our pumpout service offering a safe and legal way to dispose of sewage, there is no reason to not pumpout your boat.”

To request a pumpout from Friends of Casco Bay, you must sign up for our service. You may also email pumpout [at] cascobay [dot] org or call (207) 776-0136 with questions about our service. We charge a $10 pumpout fee per 20-gallons of sewage, and additionally offer holding tank flushes for $15. For more information about our pumpout service, boaters can visit www.cascobay.org/pumpout.

Sign up for Nabbing Nitrogen, a Clean Water Act Day of Action!

Please join more than 100 other community members as we Nab Nitrogen in Portland Harbor on Sunday, August 7. That morning, volunteers will spread out around the Harbor and collect simultaneous water samples.

Read more

Action alert: Casco Bay & Presumpscot River need your voice!

Photo provided by Michael Shaughnessy, Friends of the Presumpscot River.

The Presumpscot River and Casco Bay need your voice!

2022 marks the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act. We can think of no better way to celebrate than to see the lower Presumpscot — the biggest tributary to Casco Bay — upgraded to a Class B water.

Please help us make this happen by letting a key committee of the Maine Legislature know that you support an amendment to: “LD 1964 An Act To Update Certain Water Quality Standards and To Reclassify Certain Waters of the State.”

Under the Clean Water Act, bodies of water are classified as Class AA, A, B, or C based on their health. Class AA and A waters are the healthiest and receive the highest protections while Class C waters allow for some modification to natural conditions caused by human activity. Upgrading a body of water’s classification matters because it strengthens the legal protections it receives.

As written, LD 1964 lacks language to upgrade the lower Presumpscot River, from Saccarappa Falls in Westbrook to head of tide between Portland and Falmouth, from Class C to Class B. We are working to fix this.

Thirty years ago, the lower Presumpscot was called the “dirtiest little section of river”¹ in Maine. Back then, it could not even meet the Class C water quality standard. Today, the Presumpscot is the jewel of downtown Westbrook. The river supports ever increasing numbers of fish and wildlife. In recent years, local residents have even spotted sturgeon jumping from its waters — a sure sign of a healthy river as sturgeon are highly sensitive to pollution. People, too, are once again using the river for swimming and other forms of recreation.

On top of all of these improvements, Friends of Casco Bay and others have reviewed water quality data from the lower Presumpscot River and concluded that it meets the Class B standard. We want to lock in these improvements in water quality and make sure there is no back-sliding to Class C. The Clean Water Act forbids degrading water quality, and aspires to continually restore and upgrade waters to higher classes.

The Maine Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on LD 1964 on February 28 at 9 a.m.

Casco Bay needs you to submit written testimony in support of an amendment to the bill that will upgrade the lower Presumpscot to Class B.

It is important that the Committee hear from you. Use the toolkit below to submit your testimony.

Thank you for using your voice to help protect the health of Casco Bay,

Ivy Frignoca
Casco Baykeeper
Friends of Casco Bay

¹ Robert M. Sanford and William S. Plumley, River Voices (North Country Press, 2020), p. 239.

Testimony Toolkit to support and amend LD 1964

Below are suggested talking points you might want to include in your testimony. Legislators appreciate hearing your personal story, including what the Presumpscot River and Casco Bay mean to you.

Suggested testimony (feel free to put in your own words):

Dear Senator Stacy Brenner, Representative Ralph Tucker and Distinguished Members of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee,

I am writing to ask that the Environment and Natural Resources Committee vote that LD 1964: An Act To Update Certain Water Quality Standards and To Reclassify Certain Waters of the State, ought to pass with an amendment to upgrade the lower Presumpscot River, from  Saccarappa Falls to Head of Tide, to Class B status because:

  • The Clean Water Act aspires to restore water quality and urges us to set the highest attainable water quality classifications for all bodies of water. These expectations should now receive particular emphasis as 2022 is the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. 
  • The lower Presumpscot River was once known as the “dirtiest little section of river in the state.” Industrial pollution contributed high loads of toxins and caused dissolved oxygen levels to plummet. Dams degraged river habitat, including blocking fish passage. This all began to change when local residents and Friends of the Presumpscot River took it upon themselves to shine the spotlight on the importance of clean water. Stronger permit requirements for the S.D. Warren paper mill, water quality upgrades for upriver sections of the Presumpscot, dam removal, and fish passages have helped the river achieve a dramatic recovery. Today, the river lies at the heart of downtown Westbrook, and supports flourishing neighborhoods and recreation in nature reserves. Anadromous fish have returned to run up the Presumpscot and local residents have witnessed sturgeon jumping from its waters. 
  • In the summer of 2021, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) collected data from the lower Presumpscot. Those data show that the lower Presumpscot maintained dissolved oxygen saturation well above 75%, a benchmark that demonstrates the river meets Class B standards

Sincerely,

[Your name]

How to submit your testimony:

The Maine Legislature’s Testimony Submission and Sign-up page can be confusing to navigate. Please follow the instructions below to submit your testimony.

  • Go to https://www.mainelegislature.org/testimony/ 
  • First select “public hearing” as the type of hearing. 
  • Then select “Environment and Natural Resources Committee” and identify the specific date and time when the bill hearing is scheduled (LD 1964 will be heard on February 28 at 9 a.m). 
  • You will then have the option to select LD 1964. 
  • You can write your testimony directly into the form, copy-and-paste your testimony into the form, or click the “CHOOSE FILE” button to attach a file of your drafted testimony.
  • Finally, you will then need to put your name and contact information into the form, check the “I am not a robot” box, and click the “submit/register” button.

If you need help submitting your testimony through the Maine Legislature’s website, please reach out to our Staff Writer Robby Lewis-Nash: email robbylewisnash [at] cascobay [dot] org or call (413) 695-3306. Robby looks forward to helping you make your voice heard. 

After a rainstorm, millions of gallons of polluted stormwater pour into Casco Bay.

A Major Victory to Reduce One of The Largest Sources of Pollution to Casco Bay

As the Clean Water Act turns 50, Friends of Casco Bay celebrates new permit to reduce stormwater pollution.

Stormwater is one of the largest sources of pollution into Casco Bay. Yet, until this year, Maine has not required clear, specific, and measurable terms in the permit that controls discharges from large urban stormwater systems.

Thanks to the advocacy of Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca and Friends of Casco Bay’s partners around the Bay, the state has issued a revised municipal stormwater permit that contains much-needed protections to reduce stormwater pollution flowing from the most urbanized communities in the state. 

Under the Clean Water Act, reducing and eliminating the pollutants that flow through municipal separate storm sewer systems (or “MS4s” for short) is regulated by a general permit issued by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). In a city like Portland, these stormwater systems include the streets, storm drains, gutters, roadside ditches, and sewers that discharge untreated stormwater runoff into local waterways, some of which drain into Casco Bay. 

Maine’s new MS4 permit will implement three major changes that should significantly reduce stormwater pollution into Casco Bay and its tributaries. Municipalities that fall under the permit will be required for the first time to:

  • Test stormwater outfalls to identify and eliminate sources of bacterial contamination
  • Develop and adopt an ordinance to require new construction and redevelopment to use low impact development techniques that allow stormwater to flow more naturally and carry less pollution into stormwater systems
  • Take three actions to restore water quality and reduce pollution from their stormwater systems where it flows into impaired waters.

It took five years of advocacy by Friends of Casco Bay and scores of meetings, comments, and proceedings to ensure these vital protections were included in Maine’s new MS4 permit.

“This is a time to celebrate,” says Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca. “The changes in this permit should have huge and visible results for our watershed. What better year to have this permit take effect than during the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act. Stormwater harms the Bay in so many ways because it carries diverse and varying loads of pollutants. For example, excess nitrogen fertilizes nuisance and sometimes harmful algal blooms. Toxins can poison wildlife and degrade ecosystems. Too much bacteria closes clam flats. As climate change brings more and stronger storms to Maine, the impacts of stormwater pollution will worsen without these changes.”

Conjure an image of Casco Bay. Do you see healthy, blue-green water? Most likely.

Yet anyone who has seen Casco Bay after a large rain might conjure a different image, where that vibrant blue-green is replaced with plumes of murky, brown stormwater.

After a rainstorm, millions of gallons of polluted stormwater pour into Casco Bay.

Stormwater is one of the largest sources of pollution into Casco Bay. Stormwater is a problem because our roads, driveways, parking lots, and buildings do not allow rain to soak into the ground and be filtered through natural processes. When snow melts in the spring or rain falls, water rushes over our cities and towns, collecting a toxic slurry of pesticides and fertilizers from lawns, exhaust and salt from roadways, pathogens from pet waste, and so much more. In urbanized areas, much of this polluted runoff drains into municipal storm sewer systems that discharge into streams, rivers, and, ultimately, Casco Bay.

There are solutions to this modern problem. By using low impact development techniques, green infrastructure, and testing and investigating sources of contamination, we can drastically reduce this pollution.

A map of MS4 program in the Casco Bay Watershed
A map of MS4 communities in the Casco Bay watershed, provided by the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership.

The new MS4 permit will go into effect in July of this year. In the Casco Bay watershed, it applies to twelve municipalities and specifically regulates stormwater pollution in their most densely populated areas. The municipalities include Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth, South Portland, Portland, Falmouth, Cumberland, Yarmouth, and Freeport along the coast, as well as inland communities such as Windham, Westbrook, and Gorham.

Doug Roncarati is a Stormwater Program Coordinator for the City of Portland. “Everything we do on the landscape has the potential to create some kind of pollution,” says Doug. “The environment is very resilient, but throw too much at it over time and it will break down. We protect the environment and the long-term economic wellbeing of our communities by being thoughtful in how we manage our water resources. The MS4 permit is one way we can do that.”

MS4 permits, like all Clean Water Act permits, are renewed every five years. The renewal process provides the opportunity to assess if the permit sufficiently protects water quality or if there are improvements that need to be made. The process also allows for incremental advances that recognize budget constraints, developments in knowledge and technology, and the reality of what can be accomplished in five years. 

MS4 permits that apply to municipalities are required to contain “clear, specific, and measurable” terms to address stormwater pollution, according to a federal court ruling from 2003. In short, this ruling required environmental agencies like the Maine DEP to clearly describe how permitted municipalities should address stormwater pollution. When Maine’s MS4 permit was due to be renewed in 2018, Ivy knew there were important improvements to be made. The last version of the permit issued in 2013 did not include “clear, specific, and measurable” terms to reduce pollution.

“The requirement to set forth ‘clear, specific, and measurable’ terms in MS4 permits may be the best thing to happen for our watershed in a long time,” explains Ivy. “It fundamentally changed how MS4 permits could be written and gave Friends of Casco Bay the foundation to advocate for new permit language that will effectively reduce pollution from past actions and ensure future development does not degrade our waters.”

When the state began the permit renewal process in 2017, Ivy submitted comments on the first draft advocating for these new terms. However, for DEP and many municipalities, implementing a stronger MS4 permit would require valuable time and resources. Over the next four years, Ivy continued to advocate for stricter standards and filed more than eight sets of comments on drafts of the permit.

Ultimately, Friends of Casco Bay filed an appeal to the Maine Board of Environmental Protection asking that the new “clear, specific, and measurable” terms that Ivy had advocated for be included in the permit. In the summer of 2021, the Board of Environmental Protection sided with Friends in the appeal, and Maine’s new MS4 permit was finalized on December 23. In order to provide DEP and affected municipalities additional time to prepare to implement the new terms, it was agreed that the permit would officially go into effect on July 1, 2022.

Will Everitt, Interim Director of Friends of Casco Bay, sees this victory as a great example of how Friends works. “This was a long and challenging process,” says Will. “The way we advocate for the health of the Bay is just as important as what we achieve. We have deep respect for the DEP and affected municipalities. While we sought to address what may be the biggest source of pollution into the Bay, we also worked hard to collaborate with our partners and listen to concerns throughout the process.”

Stenciled storm drain reads, "do not dump, drains to Casco Bay."
A stenciled storm drain at Bug Light in South Portland reminds the public that what goes down the drain ends up in Casco Bay.

Today, there are more people living by and working on Casco Bay than ever before, and as our communities grow, so do our impacts on the health of the Bay. Climate change brings additional challenges to the coast, such as altering ocean chemistry and intensifying rainstorms that will send more stormwater into Casco Bay.

Damon Yakovleff, Environmental Planner at the Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation District, provides technical support to municipalities on stormwater and sustainability projects. “This permit is a part of the broader effort to make this a truly sustainable region that treads more lightly on the environment,” says Damon. “It matters in a holistic way. It is about preventing water pollution, but it goes far beyond that. It’s about supporting our economy, culture, and quality of life.”

The MS4 permit’s new stormwater protections that go into effect beginning this year will help reduce these threats. A healthy Bay is a resilient Bay. With less pollution flowing to our coastal waters, Casco Bay and our coastal communities will be better prepared to withstand the challenges we know are looming on the horizon.

Maine’s Largest Wastewater Treatment Facility Keeps 1.5 Million Pounds of Nitrogen Out of the Bay

Following plant upgrades and improved techniques at Portland’s East End Wastewater Treatment Facility in 2017, struggling eelgrass beds near the facility’s discharge outfall have rebounded and we have observed a decline in nuisance algal blooms in lower Back Cove.

Portland’s East End Wastewater Treatment Facility, the largest treatment plant in Maine, has removed approximately 1.5 million pounds of nitrogen from its discharges over the past four years. Nitrogen is a nutrient that supports healthy marine ecosystems, yet excess nitrogen from human sources such as wastewater, industry, transportation, and stormwater, can degrade water quality and harm the marine environment. In 2017, Portland Water District reconfigured the facility’s aeration basins and began denitrification, a process that converts nitrogen in the wastewater into a harmless gas. These improvements followed collaborative discussions between Portland Water District, Friends of Casco Bay and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection as the Department was renewing a Clean Water Act permit for the treatment facility.

Why is this a big deal for Casco Bay? Some regions of Casco Bay suffer from excess nitrogen pollution, and keeping 1.5 million pounds of this nutrient out of our waters is great news. In Casco Bay, a healthy amount of nitrogen supports the base of the marine food web by encouraging plant productivity and algal growth. Too much nitrogen however, can lead to nuisance and harmful algal blooms, contribute to coastal acidification, and degrade eelgrass — a vital habitat in the Bay. 

Water Reporter Post of the Month: Susan Woodman

Eyes on the intertidal: Willard Beach algal blooms

After spending her career working and living in Augusta, Susan Woodman knew exactly where she wanted to be when she retired: near the water. As an avid sea kayaker, access to the coast where she could launch her kayak was a top priority, so she chose to move to South Portland. 

“There’s nothing quite like it,” said Susan. “Kayaking on freshwater or the sea, I don’t know how you get any closer to nature. You get to see loons, seals, and all the eiders with their little ducklings, it’s really great.” 

When she is not paddling in her kayak, Susan can often be found a mile from her home walking along Willard Beach where she’s been using Water Reporter to document algal blooms and coastal erosion. One of her recent posts from June 24, shows a field of green algae carpeting the beach’s intertidal zone. A month later, Susan captured another similarly sized bloom at the same location on July 25. 

Algal blooms like the ones Susan saw can reduce water clarity, deplete dissolved oxygen levels, contribute to coastal acidification, and harm intertidal marine life like clams, mussels, and oysters. These bright green blooms are often an indicator of excess nitrogen flowing into Casco Bay from stormwater runoff, sewer overflows, and other sources of nitrogen.

Susan shares that she does not know very much about algae, and that she is far from an expert on the marine environment. However, she intuitively feels a concern for the health of Willard Beach. That feeling sparked on one of her walks a few years back, when she noticed a recent storm had caused substantial erosion and dramatically changed the appearance of the shoreline. “That was when I realized, this is something that maybe I should be paying attention to,” said Susan. 

Now when she is out on her walks, Susan carries her phone with her. If she sees something near the shore that seems striking, good or bad, she shares her observations on the Water Reporter app. Despite the feeling that she is not particularly tech-savvy, Susan has been one of our most active Water Reporters since she joined in January. 

Susan’s recent posts of algal blooms at Willard Beach prompted Friends of Casco Bay to reach out to our colleagues at the City of South Portland’s Water Resource Protection department. The city is aware of the challenges facing Willard Beach, and Water Resource Protection staff take water samples at the beach’s stormwater outfalls. The City is working to reduce nitrogen runoff into the Bay through the implementation of its recently passed fertilizer ordinance. We hope that the city’s efforts will lead to lower concentrations of nutrients in the city’s stormwater, and in turn, fewer and smaller algal blooms at Willard Beach. 

Susan, thank you for all you do to help us keep an eye on Willard Beach and Casco Bay!