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A Grassroots movement in South Portland is a model for the Bay

City of South Portland’s 100 Resilient Yards program is helping residents protect Casco Bay by growing sustainable yards and gardens.

If you drive around South Portland these days, you may have noticed yard signs that read “100 Resilient Yards, Revitalizing South Portland One Yard At A Time.”

The residents and businesses who are proudly posting these signs took part in a forward-looking program that provided hands-on assistance to build healthy soils that protect Casco Bay. City of South Portland staff, experts, and volunteers helped those in the program grow resilient landscapes, including vegetable gardens, rain gardens, native plantings and pollinator gardens, and organic lawns.

The City of South Portland restricted the use of pesticides in 2016 and limited the use of synthetic fertilizers in 2020. To help residents comply with these ordinances, Julie Rosenbach, South Portland’s Sustainability Director, conducted outreach and education throughout the pandemic. By 2021, recognizing that everyone was weary of workshops and Zoom meetings, Julie struck on a “grassroots” plan to bring best practices in yard care directly to neighborhoods.

The 100 Resilient Yards program was born.

When South Portland opened applications last spring, 430 people applied for the 100 slots. After site visits in May and June by organic landscaping professionals, 100 yards were selected. 89 people ultimately completed the pilot project.

Julie Rosenbach was delighted with the enthusiasm from the community. “People want to transition their yards to healthy, organic landscapes. They just need help getting started. With this program, we were able to help in spades.”

Friends of Casco Bay Executive Director Will Everitt is pleased that a lot of those yards belong to Friends of the Bay. After all, it was Friends of Casco Bay’s BayScaping campaign, launched 20 years ago, that began to persuade residents and community leaders to rethink their use of fertilizers and pesticides.

Each participant in South Portland’s 100 Resilient Yards program received help to create a Bay-friendly landscape. Julie assembled teams of landscaping and gardening advisors and recruited two dozen volunteers to help homeowners. The recipients got material resources such as raised beds, seeds or starter plants, mulch, compost, native plants — and even apple trees on 26 sites. It was truly a hands-on effort. Julie recalls how she and volunteers hauled 456 bags of mulch to nearly 50 sites around the City.

Emily Rothman, a Friends of Casco Bay member who lives in Ferry Village, requested a vegetable garden. She met with a technical advisor who helped her mark out a suitable site. “While we were out, they delivered a raised bed and filled it with soil!” Emily used a coupon provided by 100 Resilient Yards to pick out young plants at a farm in Cape Elizabeth. Her five-year-old helps harvest their chard, kale, and lettuce. Her two-year-old loves to play in the soil in a corner of the garden reserved for digging.

Emily says, “I learned about things I should and shouldn’t do so close to the ocean. I love it when people come by and ask questions about the garden. It helps us feel like we are doing our part and that we have an investment in the South Portland community.”

Elizabeth Ross Holstrom, another Friend of the Bay, opted to put in a native flower garden. “As a 30-year resident of South Portland, who recently downsized to a small house with no backyard garden, I was thrilled to be selected for the South Portland 100 Resilient Yards initiative.”

Her backyard was completely gravel before the beds were installed. “I worked with several team members, from the initial photos and soil testing, and plan for a native flower bed. Mine was one of the last gardens because of the prep work needed before planting could be done. Lia Farnham and Brett at Sophia Garden Design were both super helpful in keeping things on track. It turned out lovely. I am excited to see everything come up next spring. With the plants they selected, the entire bed will be colorful, multi-tiered, and self-contained. The trimmings each fall will serve as mulch for the winter.”

“The City of South Portland’s 100 Resilient Yards program has gone beyond education to help residents grow green lawns and gardens that help keep Casco Bay blue,” says Will. “We hope other towns around the Bay look at this as a model for how municipal officials, master gardeners, residents, and businesses can all work together to build soil health and protect our coastal waters from nitrogen pollution and toxic lawncare chemicals.”

Julie Rosenbach notes, “Indeed, I’ve already had interest from other communities who would like to replicate the program.”

The roots of South Portland’s effort are directly linked to the work Friends of Casco Bay has done over the years. Our stormwater and water quality sampling demonstrated that lawncare pesticides and fertilizers threaten the health of the Bay. Pesticides are toxic by design. The excess nitrogen from fertilizers could trigger nuisance algal blooms and deplete oxygen levels in the water, degrading the health of our coastal waters.

Over the years, through our BayScaping efforts, Friends of Casco Bay encouraged residents to grow lawns without using harmful chemicals. By sharing our data on pesticides and nitrogen sampling, educating city councilors about the risks of lawn chemicals, and serving on citizen task forces, we helped municipalities, including South Portland, adopt ordinances to limit lawn chemicals.

Partners on the 100 Resilient Yards project include Friends of Casco Bay, Maine Audubon, Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District, Osborne Organics, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), Wild Seed Project, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, and Garbage to Garden.

You can read more about 100 Resilient Yards by clicking here. You can find tips on chemical free lawns on Friends of Casco Bay’s website.

Many thanks to Mary Cerullo for writing this article for Friends of Casco Bay and to the City of South Portland for providing photos.

Oil Spill at Willard Beach

Friends of Casco Bay has been monitoring the situation at Willard Beach in South Portland, where an oil sheen was reported August 24th.

Update as of September 21, 2021:

After an oil spill was first reported on Willard Beach in South Portland on August 24, the beach was closed to the public for a three day cleanup effort. The cleanup was conducted by the US Coast Guard, Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the City of South Portland, and Clean Harbors Environmental Services. Cleanup crews deployed a temporary containment dam to collect oily waste. They cleaned stormwater drains, pipes, and catch basins between Willard Beach and the source of the spill on Cottage Road, near the former Hill Service Station. Ultimately, the cleanup crews removed approximately 2,000 pounds of oily seaweed, debris, and sorbent cleanup materials.

Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca toured the site during the second day of cleanup. By then, Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s trained response staff and the Clean Harbors team had swiftly contained and cleaned most of the spill. 

“It was reassuring to see wading waterfowl fishing in the area and clean sand around the stormwater outfall pipe,” Ivy observed. “I did not see any visible sheen in the water flowing from the outfall or in the water lapping the beach. I left the site relieved that the Bay had not been seriously harmed.”

Ivy was allowed on site because she is specially trained as a participant with the Maine New Hampshire Area Committee, the group of agencies, companies, and nonprofits that respond to oil spills in our region.

Following the cleanup, the DEP collected six beach core samples for lab analysis. The lab results showed that all core samples contained quantities of hydrocarbons below guideline values, and therefore posed no risk to human health. Willard Beach was deemed safe for public use and officially reopened on Saturday, August 28. 

The cause of the oil spill remains under investigation by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The findings and further actions will be made public when the investigation concludes, and we will share them with you.

Update as of August 26, 2021 at 3:00 PM:

Ivy Frignoca, Casco Baykeeper with Friends of Casco Bay, visited the site of an oil spill at Willard Beach to assess environmental impacts and cleanup progress

Ivy was permitted on site at Willard Beach this morning to talk with response personnel about the oil spill that fouled the beach and Simonton Cove in South Portland. Ivy was allowed on site because she is specially trained as a participant with the Maine New Hampshire Area Committee, the group of agencies, companies, and nonprofits that respond to oil spills in our region.

Willard Beach is temporarily closed and will reopen as soon as response personnel deem it is safe and clean.

“The best way the public can help the response team is to stay away from Willard Beach,” said Ivy. “Attempts to access boats, walk dogs, or use the playground requires response staff to leave their important work and ask visitors to leave. The less distraction they have, the sooner they can complete the cleanup.”

The cause of the spill is being thoroughly investigated and appropriate regulatory action will follow. More importantly for Casco Bay, the response crews from the State and from Clean Harbors have worked diligently to clean the storm sewer system, remove contaminated seaweed and sand from the beach, and use sorbent pads, booms, and other equipment to absorb and separate oil from contaminated water. The response team also responded to the South Portland site where oil products were introduced to the storm sewer system.

The public can also help by reporting oiled wildlife or any sheens visible on the water adjacent to Simonton Cove that may have escaped detection. Friends of Casco Bay hosted a training this spring on how to recognize an oil sheen. Any observations can be reported with the Water Reporter app, and Friends will share the information with DEP and the US Coast Guard.

During Ivy’s 90 minutes on site, she saw healthy water fowl (with no oiled feathers) wading, diving, and feeding in the intertidal zone and shallow water adjacent to the contaminated outfall pipe. Ivy saw no sheen coming from the outfall pipe but did see some contaminated material adjacent to it. The response team will continue to work to remove all contaminated matter so the beach and cove will be safe for humans and wildlife. They are waiting for lab test results to identify the oil product.

“If you see any of the response team as you walk the neighborhood, please thank them,” said Ivy. “The photos of the site yesterday compared with what I observed today confirm how hard this team has worked to decontaminate the beach, preserve water quality, and protect wildlife.”


Original post published August 25, 2021:

Oil was washed down this storm drain, which discharges into Casco Bay at Willard Beach. Responders applied absorbent material to stem the flow of oil to the Bay. Note the stenciled message, “No dumping, drains to Casco Bay.”

Here is the latest official information from the U.S. Coast Guard and Maine Department of Environmental Protection regarding the spill:

SOUTH PORTLAND, August 25, 2021 — The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the City of South Portland are all involved in the joint response to an oil spill that reached the City’s storm water drainage system and subsequently discharged into the water at Willard Beach yesterday afternoon. Crews initially responded last night and returned this morning to continue proper cleanup and remediation efforts.

A responsible party has been identified and no additional discharge has occurred since last night, nor is further discharge from the source anticipated. Maine DEP is the lead agency overseeing response operations with the USCG and City of South Portland representatives supporting. Clean Harbors Environmental Services has been contracted and has been on scene actively conducting cleanup operations, which includes collecting any contaminated seaweed and working with the City’s Water Resources Protection Department to collect any remaining oily waste in the storm water drainage system in efforts to prevent any further discharge into the water at Willard Beach. The length of the cleanup effort is currently unknown.

Willard Beach will remain closed to the public for the remainder of today. Reopening will be assessed daily as cleanup efforts continue and results from soil/sand testing are analyzed. Neighbors in the vicinity may notice some petroleum-related odors as a result of this spill; however, authorities indicate there is no danger to public health.

“This incident highlights the strong partnerships we have at the federal, state, and local level here in South Portland. This is a team effort, and we certainly appreciate the cooperation of all involved agencies. The safety of the public is our primary concern,” said Captain Amy Florentino, U.S. Coast Guard, Commander Sector Northern New England.

Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca says, “We are as concerned as you are when we hear about spills like this. We are grateful for how quickly the Coast Guard and state and local officials responded and contained the spill. These responders are well-trained and deeply committed to protecting our waters. They are keeping us up to date as they do their job. When it is appropriate, I will tour the scene with these officials for insight into the spill and the cleanup.”

We work closely with the U.S. Coast Guard, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, and other members of the Maine and New Hampshire Area Committee, the federally mandated group of officials whose responsibility is to respond to oil and hazardous material spills in our waters. In addition to government agencies, many individuals from oil spill response organizations, industry, and environmental groups, including Friends of Casco Bay, participate in the Committee’s planning process and play key roles in spill preparedness throughout the region.

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.