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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.

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.

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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. 

Casco Bay is a No Discharge Area (NDA)

Casco Bay is a federally-designated No Discharge Area, which means it is illegal to release blackwater (raw or treated sewage) from any vessel into the Bay. All boats in Casco Bay must hold their blackwater until it can be removed at a pumpout facility. It is also illegal for any vessel to discharge graywater (shower, sink, or onboard laundry water) that is mixed with blackwater. 

Smaller boats without an onboard toilet are not exempt from the No Discharge Area rules, and must collect blackwater and human waste to be disposed of at facilities on land. Some boaters keep an emergency bucket onboard for such situations.

A Note on Graywater

Graywater is wastewater from a boat’s showers, sinks, or onboard laundry. While recreational vessels (specifically, vessels that carry fewer than 250 passengers) are legally permitted to discharge graywater (when not combined with blackwater) into Casco Bay, Friends of Casco Bay does not recommend this practice. Graywater still contains elements that can harm the health of the Bay. We recommend the following practices to reduce the negative impacts of graywater and help keep the Bay clean:

  • If your vessel is large enough, hold your graywater to be pumped-out with your blackwater at a pumpout facility. 
  • When cleaning or doing dishes, use nontoxic and biodegradable cleaners with no phosphorus or nitrogen compounds. Always dilute cleaners to the maximum extent possible. 

Our top 10 moments of 2020

As this very odd year comes to a close, let’s celebrate the large and small ways our community helped us protect the health of Casco Bay in 2020. Here are our top ten for the year:

1.) On December 2, the Maine Climate Council released its four-year Climate Action Plan, “Maine Won’t Wait.” We are heartened that the plan sets a roadmap for achieving carbon neutrality in Maine by 2045 and includes important mitigation measures to help coastal communities adapt to looming changes.

2.) Our volunteer Water Reporters were chosen as CommUNITY Champions. More than 240 volunteers are helping us keep watch over the health of the Bay.

3.) Gulf of Maine Poet Gary Lawless wrote the poem, “For Casco Bay, For Us,” in honor of our 30th anniversary. You can read the poem here and hear Gary read it at our Celebrating Water event in July, hosted by Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell.

4.) The South Portland City Council passed a groundbreaking fertilizer ordinance to promote soil health and to protect Casco Bay from nitrogen pollution.

5.) In October, Staff Scientist Mike Doan and Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca shared what they saw on the Bay this field season during What Casco Bay is Telling Us: A Casco Bay Matters Event.  Ivy also hosted a Casco Bay Matters event earlier this year about the Maine Climate Council.

6.) Knack Factory made this short documentary about our work in honor of our 30th anniversary. If you liked that film, watch this behind the scenes montage about how it was made!

7.) We were delighted that Royal River Conservation Trust selected Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell and Friends of Casco Bay as recipients of their Conservation Champion Award.

8.) On Facebook, this huge lion’s mane jellyfish and this beautiful rainbow were our two most shared images from this year.

9.) We launched the public phase of our $1.5 million Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund. We are now less than $15,000 from crossing the finish line! And we will soon be launching two more continuous monitoring stations, thanks to the Fund!

10.) While we couldn’t celebrate our 30th anniversary in person, we were honored to have these community partners reflect on our success over the past three decades. We also took a trip down memory lane by scrolling through this timeline of our biggest victories and milestones.

We look forward to keeping you updated in the New Year. Thank you for being a Friend of Casco Bay.

More good news for the Bay

Nuisance algal blooms, such as the one seen this summer along the Fore River in South Portland, can be caused by excess nitrogen. These blooms can degrade water quality and create conditions that worsen coastal acidification.

Casco Bay received an early holiday gift: the City of South Portland passed an ordinance to restrict the use of fertilizers in order to encourage soil health and reduce nitrogen pollution into our coastal waters.

Friends of Casco Bay applauds South Portland for taking this first-in-Maine step to protect our marine resources. The ordinance, which updates the City’s groundbreaking pesticide regulations, was passed on November 17. Any fertilizers used must be organic and free from synthetic chemicals, and a soil test is request before any use is allowed. There are special provisions for high performance such as playing fields, and new construction. The ordinance focuses on best practices for promoting soil health.

South Portland began working on this ordinance because nitrogen, which is found in lawn care fertilizers, can be washed downstream into the Bay. Once in marine water, excess nitrogen can cause nuisance and harmful algal blooms, which degrade water quality and create conditions that worsen coastal acidification. Friends of Casco Bay’s water quality data, including sampling for Total Nitrogen and pesticides, have been pivotal for helping the city understand the need to limit the use of lawn care chemicals.

South Portland’s City Council appointed Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell to the Fertilizer Working Group, which was tasked with drafting the protections. For a year-and-a-half, Cathy served alongside local residents, city officials, and landscaping business owners, to develop the ordinance.

“This is great news for the Casco Bay! South Portland has shown tremendous leadership in its efforts to protect our marine resources,” says Cathy, reflecting on the Working Group’s effort. “Whenever we hit a roadblock in the drafting of the ordinance, work group members found a way forward by reminding ourselves of the need protect the health of the Bay and the importance of healthy soils, especially in light of climate change.”

While South Portland’s fertilizer ordinance is the first of its kind in the state, we hope it will not be the last. Local ordinances such as this can lead to changes at regional and statewide levels. The City’s pesticide ordinance, for example, has been used as a template by other municipalities in Maine, including Portland.

As a Friend of the Bay, you probably know that we launched our BayScaping program nearly 20 years ago to help residents and businesses grow green lawns that can help keep Casco Bay blue. We have worked with local residents, Master Gardeners, TopLine Landscapes professionals, and state agencies to encourage the use of ecological approaches to lawn care rather than depending on fertilizers and pesticides. As BayScaping has taken root in our communities, more towns around the Bay have considered ordinances to reduce lawn care chemicals.

Helping municipalities develop ordinances is just one of the many ways Friends of Casco Bay is working to limit nitrogen pollution in the Bay. We continue to work with federal, state, and local officials to reduce sewer overflows, address stormwater pollution, and enforce the Bay’s No Discharge Area status.

Following the East End Wastewater Treatment Plant’s sewage spill closely

Friends of Casco Bay has been following the East End Wastewater Treatment Plant’s sewage spill closely. 

On Sunday, July 19, a power outage and a failed backup generator at the treatment plant led to the discharged nearly four million gallons of partially treated wastewater into Casco Bay, near East End Beach in Portland. 

On Sunday, upon finding out about the release of sewage into the Bay, Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca was in contact with Portland Water District, who operates the plant. She then followed up with the Maine Healthy Beaches Program, which conducts bacteria sampling to protect public health at East End Beach. 

Portland Water District has submitted a report to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), as required, within five days of the incident. Under the Clean Water Act, DEP has enforcement authority and will conduct its own investigation into the spill. When a similar spill occurred in 2018, DEP leveraged a penalty and corrective action.

Friends of Casco Bay will continue to track this incident from beginning to end. 

Ivy was asked by a reporter to help put this spill in context. We are concerned about acute incidents such as this, especially given the size of the spill. Casco Bay suffers, too, from the chronic problem of combined sewer overflows. For example, in 2016, nearly 69 million gallons of stormwater mixed with raw sewage, debris and polluted runoff flowed into Back Cove, Portland Harbor and other local waterways following a 4-inch rainstorm.

 

Reducing a large source of pollution into the Bay

After a rainstorm, millions of gallons of polluted stormwater pour into Casco Bay.A wedge of dirty brown water floating on Casco Bay after a hard rain makes it is easy to understand that stormwater is one of the largest sources of pollution to our coastal waters. Stormwater can wash fertilizer, oil, pesticides, dirt, bacteria and other pollutants into our coastal waters. After one heavy rainstorm, we found a wedge of polluted stormwater 18 feet deep floating on top of seawater in Portland Harbor. Some of that polluted water flows into the Bay through storm drains, pipes, and ditches maintained by municipalities.

Over the next five years, many of the larger municipalities in the Casco Bay watershed will try to significantly reduce stormwater pollution. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection issues a new permit every five years to regulate pollution from municipal separate storm sewer systems. In each new permit cycle, the intent is to make communities more effective at reducing stormwater pollution.

Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca is especially excited about two new provisions in the draft permit that regulates pollution from municipal separate storm sewer systems—MS4s for short.

Says Ivy, “Under the proposed permit, municipalities must test their stormwater outfalls for bacteria and other pollutants—and if found, they must trace them back to the source and work to eliminate the pollutants. Second, if a stormwater system discharges into an urban impaired stream listed in the permit, the municipality must identify ways it will reduce pollution, both through structural changes to treat stormwater and nonstructural changes, which could include adoption of an ordinance to restrict and reduce the use of fertilizers.”

Fred Dillon, South Portland Stormwater Program Coordinator, and Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca test for bacteria in a municipal stormwater pipe in the Willard Beach neighborhood. [Photo taken last summer.]
Our Casco Baykeeper commented on many preliminary drafts of the new MS4 permit. She also met with state and town officials many times to discuss permit terms. Says Ivy, “We are gratified that our towns and cities worked with us and agreed to take these measures to improve and protect the waters we cherish and rely on.”

Fred Dillon, South Portland’s Stormwater Program Coordinator, reflects, “Ivy and Friends of Casco Bay were instrumental in helping MS4 communities step up our water resource protection efforts while also ensuring we have the adequate funding to do so.” South Portland is one of the communities around Casco Bay regulated under the general MS4 permit, along with Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland, Falmouth, Freeport, Portland, Scarborough, Westbrook, and Yarmouth.

Flushable wipes are not flushable

With toilet paper currently in short supply, there is a looming problem that threatens cities, towns, and water districts. So-called flushable wipes are clogging sewer systems.

Flushable wipes are NOT flushable.

Friends of Casco Bay has worked with the Portland Water District to educate the community that “flushables” actually are not flushable; they do not disappear innocuously down the toilet. Many consumers find, to their chagrin, that these products can cause sewage backups inside their homes. Nonflushables clog the pipes leading to sewage treatment plants. The resulting debris must be removed manually. The money that this costs taxpayers, rate payers, and homeowners, to repair these problems would be better spent on other municipal upgrades and improvements.

Even tissues do not break down the same way as toilet paper. See News Center Maine’s interview with Portland Water District on this topic here.

Dreaming of a green yard…and a blue Bay

BayScaping helps you grow green yards that keep Casco Bay blue. By being a BayScaper, you can help keep pesticides and fertilizers from polluting the Bay.

While there is snow on the ground when you really want to be digging in the garden, you can spend some carefree hours creating a beautiful BayScape in your mind!

You can incorporate ecological lawn care strategies into planning a new look for your yard, one that will require less maintenance and less expense than the outdated, overrated, “perfect” lawn of old.

 

Reflect on what you have now and design your ideal yard

Ask yourself, “What would I like my yard to do for me?” Are there areas of your lawn that demand more attention, maintenance, or chemicals than you would like? Are there views from inside your home that you could enhance by planting different vegetation? Do you want to attract birds and pollinators?

Sketch a map of your yard and its features, preferably on graph paper. Include:

  • Buildings, driveway (read more to avail the patio pavers), walkways, and borders: neighboring yards, brook, street
  • Garden beds, water gardens, lawns, trees, and shrubs
  • Current uses, such as, sitting areas, playscapes, sports areas, gardening work areas, or vistas for visual enjoyment

Highlight with yellow marker those areas of your lawn where you have turf challenges: areas that receive little sunlight, experience heavy foot traffic, or are poorly drained.  Perhaps you should think of alternatives to grass such as patios of permeable paving stones or ground cover such as bunchberry, partridgeberry, or Canada mayflower. In wet areas, consider placing rain barrels, rain gardens, or bushes that can help prevent runoff.

Now create another map that includes all those elements you would like to have in your yard.

 

Ask the experts

Bring your ideal yard map to a nursery or garden supply store to learn more about native plants, low maintenance grass seed mixes, and ecological lawn care. The staff will appreciate the company, they will have more time to brainstorm with you, and you may appreciate being around lush greenery.

 

DON’T pile snow on the lawn

This promotes snow mold disease in the grass.

 

DO put a BayScaper sign in your yard

Come by our office and pick up a free sign that announces to your neighbors that a green yard and a blue Bay will be the “in” colors for Spring! Request a BayScaper informational packet, a yard sign, or a presentation for a neighborhood association or garden club within the coastal Casco Bay area.

Reach us at Friends of Casco Bay, 43 Slocum Drive, South Portland, keeper [at] cascobay [dot] org, or (207) 799-8574.