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The looming question for the future— How is Casco Bay changing?

Photograph by Kevin Morris • Aerial support provided by LightHawk

We see water itself as fundamental habitat. When water quality deteriorates, eelgrass, plankton, clams, and other marine creatures suffer. Thanks to our 25-year data set on water quality in Casco Bay, we now have a better overall understanding of the health of the Bay. We understand when and which areas of the Bay are likely to exhibit challenged water quality conditions.

Armed with this baseline data, we can now begin to address the question How is the Bay changing?—thus, the establishment last year of our first automated Continuous Monitoring Station. We will also continue to monitor selected sites at the surface, to supplement the historical data set compiled by our Citizen Stewards Program. And, we will look more intensively, using surface-to-bottom transects, at those regions of the Bay which present challenged conditions. New data and observations may help us begin to understand how climate change, excess nitrogen, and the changing chemistry of Casco Bay may be impacting the ocean food web.

Our Nabbing Nitrogen event in 2016 signaled to us that there is a huge reservoir of goodwill from people who want to help protect the health of the Bay and are willing to do that in short bursts of data collection efforts. We foresee new volunteer opportunities in this type of data collection, as well as in expanding other community service projects, such as coastal clean-ups, storm drain stenciling efforts, and issue-education events to inspire Champions for the Bay.

Citizen Steward volunteers will continue to be key to our organization as they help us move into this next phase of work to improve and protect the environmental health of Casco Bay. Casco Bay belongs to all of us, and this Bay is fortunate to have so many Friends.

Cathy L Ramsdell, CPA, CGMA
Executive Director

Cathy Ramsdell Interview

What we have learned from 25 years of water quality data

Since 1992, more than 650 volunteers have gotten their hands wet in our Citizen Stewards Water Quality Monitoring Program, complementing the work of our staff scientists in assessing the environmental health of Casco Bay. This science is the foundation of much of our community engagement and advocacy efforts.

Volunteer Citizen Stewards measured dissolved oxygen, temperature, salinity, water clarity, and pH at nearly 40 shoreside sites on the same date and time on ten Saturdays from April through October, to create a simultaneous snapshot of surface conditions around the Bay.

Our staff scientists have monitored offshore at 10 stations, from surface to sea floor, aboard our research vessel, every month of the year.

The data allowed us to address these questions:

  • How healthy is the Bay?
  • Where are problem areas?
  • What influences the health of the Bay?

 

What we have learned

  • Casco Bay is generally healthy, compared with other estuaries.
  • Year after year, our data has identified Portland Harbor, the New Meadows embayment, and the mouth of the Harraseeket River as the most environmentally challenged areas in Casco Bay.
  • The healthiest regions of the Bay are Broad Sound, Maquoit and Middle bays, and the offshore waters near Halfway Rock.
  • By sampling both along the shore and offshore, we determined that land-based origins contribute significant sources of excess nitrogen.
  • The bottom water of the Bay has become more acidic, a worrying trend that mirrors what is happening worldwide.
  • Summer is lasting longer beneath Casco Bay. Water temperatures are staying warmer into the fall.
  • In order to better understand how the Bay is changing, we are increasing the frequency of data collection.

Volunteer Appreciation & Annual Member’s Meeting

Friends of Casco Bay’s 2016 Volunteer Appreciation Celebration & 2018 Annual Members Meeting

Volunteer Appreciation Celebration
& 2018 Annual Members Meeting

Join us as we recognize those who help us protect the health of Casco Bay. We will provide the updated Casco Bay Health Index based on data collected by volunteer Citizen Stewards over the past 25 years, and we will share new program directions.

When: Tuesday, January 23, 2018, 5:30-8 p.m.
[snow date: January 24, 2018]
5:30 Hors d’oeuvres, cash bar, Program begins at 6:30

WhereDiMillo’s On the Water, 25 Long Wharf, Portland, ME 04101
Free parking while at event.

Donation to attend is appreciated, not required. Suggested donation: $10 per person
If making a donation to attend this event, RSVP here

If you want to RSVP without making a donation, email Sarah Lyman at slyman [at] cascobay [dot] org or call our office at (207) 799-8574.

 

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.

Back Cove August 2nd, 2017

Our “Slime Watchers” Are Keeping an Eye on the Bay

Back Cove August 2nd, 2017
Friends of Casco Bay volunteer Deb Dawson took this algal bloom photo over Portland’s Back Cove this summer to document how much the green slime had spread.

If you have ever thought about buying a drone but could not figure out what to use it for, take a lesson from Deb Dawson, a professional photographer and one of our volunteer water quality monitors. This past summer, Deb took her talents to even greater heights—right over Back Cove in Portland with her new drone outfitted with a video camera.

Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell, who regularly walks Baxter Boulevard, had reported seeing green algae growth spreading across Back Cove. She says, “We know that nitrogen fertilizes green plants in the ocean just as it does on land. It would be great if we could determine what is causing this bloom – excess fertilizer? – stormwater runoff? – sewage discharges? – a lack of predators? – car and factory emissions? – or all of the above!”

Before launching her drone, Deb checked with the Portland Jetport to make sure the route she had scouted out would not interfere with the traffic pattern of landing and departing planes.

Deb’s images confirmed what Cathy had feared: the Cove was quickly becoming carpeted in green slime. An email alert went out to Friends of Casco Bay members and the news media.

Other “green slime” reports have come in from other parts of Casco Bay. Report excess green slime by emailing slimewatchers@cascobay. org. Take a photo and tell us the location, with coordinates and landmarks, if you can.

Casco Bay: Then and Now

THEN—Sewage, Sappi, and oil spills

Early on in our history, Friends of Casco Bay confronted the fact that millions of gallons of raw sewage emptied into Casco Bay each year from overflowing sewer pipes. Sewage from boats was also a concern, leading us to establish a marine toilet pumpout service for recreational boats. Our advocacy for regulations to prevent cruise ships from discharging polluted water right at the dock helped make Casco Bay one of the most protected bays in the nation from vessel sewage and other wastewater.

We battled pollution on many fronts, all while building an organization based on scientific credibility and a “work with” approach. By pushing to enforce existing environmental regulations, we helped to eliminate the biggest source of pollution to Casco Bay—pulp wastes from the Westbrook paper mill. This wastewater sucked the oxygen from the Presumpscot River and delivered toxic water to Casco Bay.

As one of the busiest oil delivery ports on the East Coast, Portland needed to prepare for the very real possibility of an oil spill. Friends of Casco Bay lobbied for more training and cleanup equipment. This preparation enabled responders to recover 78% of the 180,000 gallons of oil spilled when the Julie N tanker hit the Casco Bay Bridge in 1996.

To learn about pollution in the past, click here.

NOW—Nitrogen pollution, ocean acidification, and sinking oil—threats we didn’t even think about a generation ago

Today, Casco Bay faces new challenges. Our research shows that parts of Casco Bay are acidic enough to dissolve juvenile clams. The cause? Carbon dioxide from emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks and nitrogen pollution from sewage discharges, fertilizers, and stormwater runoff. Excess nitrogen triggers algae blooms that result in more carbon dioxide and less oxygen in seawater.

We are again warning that Portland Harbor needs to be better prepared for an oil spill, including spills of heavy crude oils, which may sink to the bottom of the Bay, making our current cleanup tools ineffective.

We often say, “Think local, act local”, a mantra that we find ourselves using more and more, as local communities become the change agents for environmental activism/progress to combat pollution and climate change. We help municipalities craft ordinances on pesticides, plastics, stormwater pollution, and other issues that later are adopted by neighboring cities and towns.

While our focus remains Casco Bay, we recognize that global climate change threatens every water body, and indeed, every individual on the planet. The impact of rising seas, warming water, and acidifying oceans is truly a game changer, creating environmental and social challenges faster than anyone anticipated.

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!”

Nabbing Nitrogen results

Nabbing Nitrogen Flash Mob: What We Learned

Nabbing Nitrogen results
Nitrogen levels were high at every place we sampled. The highest levels of
nitrogen were found closer to land, in tidal creeks and near combined sewer
overflows. Lower nitrogen levels were found further from shore.

On Sunday morning, July 10th, 2016, at precisely 10:10 a.m., 97 people knelt down along the edge of Portland Harbor and scooped up small vials of water from Casco Bay. They were not praising Poseidon—they were Nabbing Nitrogen.

A recent heavy rain had flushed a surge of stormwater into the Fore River, so we were not surprised that
the analysis of their water samples found elevated levels of nitrogen. The most important takeaway of the event, though, was that there is an amazing Casco Bay community of volunteers ready and willing to get involved when we send out a call to action!