There are more than 30 miles of public-access beaches stretching along Maine's Atlantic waters, including bays, sounds, and estuaries. The coastal beachwater 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.
Identifying and Correcting Sources of Contamination at Beaches in Maine
In 2011, MHB continued a multiyear enhanced monitoring study of Cape Neddick River aimed at identifying sources of beachwater contamination at Cape Neddick Beach. Mapping the monitoring results for fecal indicator bacteria and optical brighteners (an ingredient in many laundry detergents that, when found with fecal indicator bacteria, can indicate human sewage) along with watershed characteristics helped prioritize the river's subwatersheds for further investigation. So far, the study has identified malfunctioning septic systems, pet waste, and wildlife as possible sources of contamination at this beach, and as a result, the town of York has developed a detailed work plan for the Cape Neddick River that includes surveying properties for malfunctioning septic systems and enforcing the local septic pumping ordinance. Permitting issues have already been discovered because of these surveys. In June 2011, the York Board of Selectmen approved $35,000 in funding to help restore water quality at Cape Neddick Beach.
MHB also continued enhanced monitoring at Goosefare Brook in 2011. This brook impacts the water quality at Kinney Shores Beach in Saco and Ocean Park Beach in Old Orchard Beach. The brook was tested for fecal indicator bacteria, optical brighteners, urobilin (a compound excreted in the urine and feces of many mammals), pharmaceuticals, and pharmaceutical metabolites. Like optical brighteners, the presence of pharmaceuticals and/or their metabolites is an indicator of human sewage rather than pet or wildlife waste. The pharmaceuticals and pharmaceutical metabolites that were tested for included 1,7-dimethylxanthine (a stimulant and a metabolite of caffeine), acetaminophen (a pain reliever), atenolol (a blood pressure medication), caffeine, carbamazepine (an anticonvulsant and mood-stabilizing drug used primarily in the treatment of epilepsy and bipolar disorder), cotinine (a metabolite of nicotine), and sulfamethazine (an antibiotic). While the analysis of the study results has yet to be completed, both Saco and Old Orchard Beach are conducting illicit-discharge detection and elimination studies, including video camera surveillance of sewer and stormwater infrastructure, so that cross-connections between wastewater systems and stormwater systems, leaky pipes, and other sewer-to-surface water issues can be found and eliminated. Also, Old Orchard Beach has plans to upgrade 20,000 feet of sewer pipe over the next five years.
In 2012, MHB plans to continue supporting enhanced monitoring and source tracking efforts in the Cape Neddick River, Kennebunk River, Goosefare Brook, Rockport Harbor, and at Lincolnville. These studies will include monitoring for bacteria and optical brighteners and, in partnership with U.S. EPA, source tracking of nutrients and pharmaceuticals.
In 2011, samples from freshwater inputs to three beaches in York (Cape Neddick, Long Sands, and Short Sands) were tested for specific sequences of genetic material from human polyomavirus (HPyV), human-associated Bacteroidales (HBact), and all Bacteroidales (GBact) using quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR). The results of this study wil help to identify sources of contamination at these beaches.
What Does Beachwater Monitoring Show?
In 2011, Maine reported 71 coastal beaches, 1 (1%) of which was assigned a monitoring frequency of more than once a week, 57 (80%) a frequency of once a week, 2 (3%) every other week, and 1 (1%) once a month. Ten (14%) were not assigned a monitoring frequency. In 2011, 9% of all reported beach monitoring samples exceeded the state's daily maximum bacterial standard of 104 colonies/100 ml. The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the state standard in 2011 were Laite Beach in Knox County (41%), Wells Harbor in York County (28%); Goodies Beach in Knox County (26%); and Riverside (Ogunquit) (26%), Gooch's Beach (24%), and Cape Neddick Beach (24%) in York County. Beaches in Knox County had the highest exceedance rate of the state standard in 2011 (28%), followed by Waldo (18%), York (9%), Hancock (8%), Lincoln (7%), Cumberland (5%), and Sagadahoc (2%) counties. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.
* Please note that only samples from a common set of beaches monitored each year from 2007-2011 are included in the bar chart.
What Are Maine's Sampling Practices?
The monitoring season lasts approximately three months, from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Monitoring is extended to include spring wet-weather monitoring and special studies for targeted areas.
MHB is a voluntary program, and in order to participate, a beach must have a management entity that can meet the program's protocols and conditions. Beaches are assigned to Tier 3 and are not monitored if they do not meet the criteria for program participation. Monitoring coastal water quality for swimming and other water contact usage is the responsibility of local jurisdictions, municipalities, or state parks and is not mandated by state law. Samples are taken in 2 to 3 feet of water.
Monitoring sites at each beach are selected based on where people swim, at sources of freshwater inputs to the beach, and near other high-risk features including sewage treatment plant outfalls and wildlife. Once a beach is closed or placed under advisory, MHB recommends that the monitoring frequency increase until the beach is reopened. However, some localities do not have the ability to conduct increased monitoring, and the beaches in these towns cannot be reopened until the next routine sample is analyzed.
For areas experiencing chronic bacterial pollution, additional monitoring sites are added throughout the watershed, and/or wet-weather monitoring is conducted to help determine the source(s) of pollution. As noted above, monitoring for special studies conducted by MHB often includes analysis of optical brighteners. When the concentration of optical brighters is greater than 200 µg/L in water with elevated fecal indicator bacteria levels, human sources of fecal contamination are suspected.
How Many Beach Closings and Advisories Were Issued in 2011?
No closings were issued in 2011. Total advisory days for 51 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less decreased 46% to 112 days in 2011 from 207 days in 2010. For prior years, there were 250 closing and advisory days in 2009, 170 days in 2008, 176 days in 2007, 134 days in 2006, and 92 days in 2005. There were no extended or permanent events in 2011. Extended events are those in effect more than six weeks but not more than 13 consecutive weeks; permanent events are in effect for more than 13 consecutive weeks. For the 51 events lasting six consecutive weeks or less, 98% (110) of advisory days were due to monitoring that revealed elevated bacteria levels, and 2% (2) were preemptive due to Hurricane Irene's heavy rainfall.
How Does Maine Determine When to Warn Visitors About Swimming?
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. When determining whether to recommend issuing a beach advisory, MHB applies a single-sample standard for enterococcus of 104 mpn/100 ml. A geometric mean standard is considered but not strictly applied when determining whether a beachwater sample exceeds bacterial standards.
Results of all monitoring samples are transmitted to the MHB database, and automatic e-mail alerts are issued to beach managers, local officials, and other entities as soon as an exceedance is found. Advisories are not issued solely on the basis of monitoring results. The decision to post a beach is made by the local beach manager (in partnership with MHB staff) based on factors including bacteria levels, environmental conditions, risk of pollution, and history of high bacteria levels. Each decision is made on a case-by-case basis. Depending on the conditions, MHB will recommend an advisory or closing when the standards are exceeded, and the decision to post an advisory or closing for a beach is the responsibility of the town or state park. In areas with historically good water quality and a low risk of pollution, an advisory may not be posted until resample results are available, while in areas with historically poor water quality and a high risk of pollution, beaches are posted following an exeedance. Whether to resample before issuing an advisory also depends on the magnitude of the exceedance and on whether there is a known pollution event. MHB staff follow up after each exceedance to ensure that state protocols were followed correctly and in a timely manner.
The program recommends that precautionary rainfall advisories be posted at beaches with a history of elevated bacteria levels and stormwater issues. There are a few communities in Maine that, depending on conditions, may post an advisory after a specified amount of rainfall.1 Local officials are notified when there is a known sewage spill.
Maine 2011 Monitoring Results and Notice and Advisory Days
||Assigned Monitoring Frequency
||% of samples exceeding state standards
||Closing or Advisory days