Home » To B or not to B…that is the question for the Presumpscot

To B or not to B…that is the question for the Presumpscot

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

The Presumpscot River is the largest tributary into Casco Bay. The healthier the river is, the healthier the Bay will be.

We have been working to upgrade the Clean Water Act classification for the lower Presumpscot River, which runs from Saccarappa Falls in Westbrook to head of tide, where the river turns salty before flowing into the Bay. Under the Clean Water Act, bodies of water are classified as Class AA, A, B, or C based on their health. Upgrading a body of water’s classification matters because it strengthens the legal protections it receives.

On February 28, the Environment and Natural Resources Committee of the Maine Legislature considered amending a sweeping water reclassification bill (LD 1964) to upgrade the lower Presumpscot from Class C to Class B status.

Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca testified before the Committee. Her expert statement focused on the specifics of local discharge permits and water quality regulations, but her final comments spoke to the heart why this issue matters.

“I don’t know if any of you have been along the river lately, but I’ve been hiking it and I skied along it this weekend,” said Ivy. “There are eagles soaring and people enjoying it everywhere. What an amazing river! It went from the dirtiest little river segment in the state to the jewel it is today in Maine’s most urbanized area. This is the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. Please, upgrade this segment of the river and preserve it for generations to come.”

Despite favorable scientific data and expert testimony from Ivy and others, the Committee did not approve the Presumpscot amendment. For now, the lower Presumpscot River will retain its status as Class C water.

The Committee’s decision largely hinged on a single data point. That data point showed that on one day last summer, for one fifteen minute increment, the lower Presumpscot dipped just below Class B dissolved oxygen standards.* How to interpret this data point is a judgment call. At Friends, we believe this data point is scientifically insignificant. Yet the Committee was concerned that if the lower Presumpscot were upgraded to Class B status, a dip like this one could trigger regulations that would impact the Sappi mill and the Westbrook wastewater treatment plant, which both discharge into the river.

As it became obvious that the Committee would not consider the Presumpscot amendment, Ivy met with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The Department agreed to collect more data from the lower Presumpscot in response to the Committee’s concern. We, too, plan on collecting data in this segment of the river. Gathering more data will help to further assess the lower Presumpscot’s health.

If the data show that the river continues to meet Class B standards, we will stand ready to help push for this important Clean Water Act upgrade next year.

If you were one of the many Friends who submitted testimony in support of the Presumpscot amendment, thank you. Our continued efforts to advocate for the river will be strengthened because legislators heard directly from you. We also want to thank our partners at Friends of the Presumpscot River for introducing the proposal to upgrade the lower Presumpscot, and the many other groups who wrote supporting testimony. You are all Friends of Casco Bay.

*Over the summer of 2021, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection deployed a data sonde in the lower Presumpscot and set it to collect data every 15 minutes. To meet Class B standards, the river must maintain dissolved oxygen levels at or above 7 parts per million (ppm) or 75% of saturation, whichever is higher. At all times, the dissolved oxygen saturation remained well above 75%. On or about July 2, one data point shows dissolved oxygen dipped for less than 15 minutes to 6.98 ppm. This slight dip is not cause for alarm. It is scientifically accepted that a 0.02 dip falls within the statistical margin of error.