New Water Quality Report: Maine Beaches Still Struggling with High Bacteria Levels

Environment and public health groups call on Feds to strengthen standards and invest in monitoring

Environment Maine

(PORTLAND) A new beach water safety report shows Maine’s coastal communities continue to struggle with high bacteria levels at local beaches. The 23rd annual Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) ranks Maine 27th out of 30 coastal states for beach water quality. Environment Maine released the report today at Portland’s East End Beach and called on federal and state officials to do more to protect Maine beachgoers from dangerous water quality. Speakers included NRDC, Friends of Casco Bay, Allagash Brewing Company, and a Portland physician, who all joined the call to clean up Maine’s beaches.

“A day at the beach shouldn’t turn into a night in the hospital,” stated Emily Figdor, Director of Environment Maine. “Maine beaches are summer playgrounds for local families, and they draw visitors from around the world. We need to do everything we can to clean up the sewage and contaminated runoff that put Maine beaches and beach-goers at risk. It will take action by our leaders in Augusta and Washington to be successful.”

This year’s Testing the Waters report reveals that 11% of water samples taken fKnox County had the highest rate of water samples exceeding the health standard at 30%, followed by Waldo at 17%, Lincoln at 13%, Hancock at 12%, York at 10%, Cumberland at 9%, and Sagadahoc at 3%.

“As a doctor, I can tell you that beach water bacterial contamination is a serious health threat,” stated Rosie Davis, a physician from Portland. “And as a mom, I can tell you that my beach bag includes a pail and shovel for sand castles, not a water testing kit. Parents and doctors want standards in place that reasonably protect public health and a reporting system we can trust to tell us when the water isn’t safe. But right now the EPA says it’s OK for 1 in 28 people to get sick with illness like diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting when they go to the beach. That’s simply unacceptable.”

Beach water pollution is known to cause a range of waterborne illnesses in swimmers, including stomach flu, skin rashes, ear and eye infections, hepatitis, and neurological disorders. There were a total of 194 beach closings or advisory days in 2012, an increase of 73% from the 112 days in 2011. Elevated bacteria levels were responsible for 92% of the closing/advisory days and 8% were preemptive due to heavy rainfall.

“The water in this area was a big reason that Allagash founder Rob Tod chose Portland as a place to start a brewery,” said Dee Dee Germain with Allagash Brewing Company. “In brewing, the chemical make-up and quality of your water is incredibly important. Beer is actually more than 90% water. There is also the quality of life and access to all of the amenities being close to the water provides. Investing and innovating in how we reduce storm water run-off is an investment in Maine’s economic future and in the health of our children and grandchildren. We hope that Congress and the White House will join us in this effort.

The federal funding that supports Maine’s beach water monitoring program is currently in limbo. President Obama’s fiscal year 2014 budget suggests eliminating funding for a federal grant program under the BEACH Act that Maine and many other states rely upon to fund their monitoring programs.

“Maine’s tourism and fishing industries combined bring well over a billion dollars a year into Maine’s economy,” said Will Everitt of Friends of Casco Bay. “If we don’t invest in our future and clean up our water, we will see more sewage overflows, more swimmers getting sick, and our natural resource based economy will falter. Maine people deserve a more comprehensive beach testing and reporting program so everyone in the state will know if their beaches are safe.”

The Testing the Waters report for Maine revealed some success stories and some persistent problem areas. There was good news in the town of Camden, which received funding from the Maine Coastal Program to improve its monitoring and public outreach program. The increased monitoring led to the discovery of an illicit sewer cross-connection to a storm drain that empties to the Megunticook River. It was repaired within one week of discovery.rom 71 Maine beaches in 2012 exceeded the state’s daily maximum bacterial standard of 104 colonies/100 ml. The beaches with the greatest percentage of samples exceeding the standard were Goodies Beach in Knox County, Riverside (Ogunquit) in York County, Laite Beach in Knox County, Short Sands Beach in York County, Ferry Beach (Scarborough) in Cumberland County, and Crescent Beach (Kittery) in York County.
Four beach management areas—Goodies, Goose Rocks, East End, and Riverside-Ogunquit—accounted for 36% of the reported beach action days in 2012. Higher than normal rainfall in 2012 is considered one of the culprits. Runoff pollution contributes to bacteria loads at these locations through factors such as storm drains that empty directly onto beaches, a high percentage of impervious ground cover, and the close proximity of urbanized areas.

“Our nation’s seashores continue to suffer from storm water runoff and sewage pollution that can make people sick and harm coastal economies,” stated Melissa Waage of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Luckily, today more than ever, we know that much of this filth is preventable, and we can turn the tide against water pollution. By establishing better beach water quality standards and putting untapped 21st century solutions in place – we can make a day at the beach as carefree as it should be, and safeguard America’s vital tourism economies.”

In addition to calling for a more comprehensive and adequately funded monitoring effort in Maine, Testing the Waters highlights two critical actions that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can take to protect people at the beach. First, because polluted runoff is the biggest known source of beach water pollution, EPA should strengthen and rigorously enforce national standards for polluted storm water to reduce runoff using innovative green infrastructure solutions. Second, EPA should reconsider its new recreational beach water quality criteria, which leave beachgoers inadequately protected and unnecessarily exposed to bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can make them sick.

“We’re calling on state and federal officials to help Maine clean up our beach water,” said Figdor. “We need a comprehensive monitoring and notification system to protect kids and families; we need new rules that help communities reduce storm water runoff; and we need standards for water quality that adequately protect human health. State lawmakers and Maine’s delegation to Washington can and should play an important role in making beach water safety a priority in the year ahead. Our health and our economy depend on it.”

Environment Maine, an advocacy organization with more than 17,000 members and supporters statewide, released the Maine-specific data from the NRDC annual report card on America’s beaches. The report includes a guide for how everyone can takes steps at home, no matter where they live, to help make Maine’s beach water safer. This includes reducing storm water runoff from your home or business, such as by putting rain barrels under drainage pipes and planting rain gardens.

NRDC’s report also includes an updated, mobile-friendly zip code searchable map of more than 6,000 beaches nationwide, making it easier than ever for users to check important water quality, monitoring, closing and swimming advisory information at their local beaches. Find it here:

There are more than 30 miles of public-access beaches stretching along Maine’s Atlantic waters, including bays, sounds, and estuaries. The coastal beach water quality monitoring program, Maine Healthy Beaches (MHB), is managed by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and coordinated by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Both closings and advisories can be issued in Maine, but closings are rare and occur only when beaches experience chronic high bacteria levels or known threats to safety or public health, and in municipalities where closing ordinances are in place. The Maine Healthy Beaches website provides beach status and data.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists. Since 1970, their lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. Visit them at and follow them on Twitter @NRDC.

Environment Maine is a citizen-based environmental advocacy organization working to preserve Maine’s open spaces, protect clean air and water, and steer the state toward a clean energy future.

Allagash Brewing was started in 1995 on the outskirts of Portland Maine. Allagash brews all Belgian-inspired beers and over the last 18 years, has become one of the most respected brewers in the world. Allagash has also made a commitment to being a responsible environmental steward. Allagash purchases renewable energy credits from the Steel Winds II wind farm in Lackawanna NY to offset the electricity use and resulting emissions of brewery operations. In 2012 they recycled over 50,000 lbs of cardboard, over 11,000 lbs of LDPE plastic and over 25 tons of glass, paper and plastic. Allagash also side-streams its production effluent for monitoring and adjustment, before releasing it to the Portland sewer system.

The mission of Friends of Casco Bay is to improve and protect the environmental health of Casco Bay. Home to the Casco BAYKEEPER®, they are a founding member of WATERKEEPER® ALLIANCE, a network of 200 independent environmental groups working to protect waters around the world.