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Watershed watchers eye Stroudwater River

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Posted: Thursday, May 16, 2013 9:23 am

WESTBROOK – A group of volunteers who live along the Stroudwater River in Westbrook and Portland have begun an effort to help the troubled waterway.

Volunteers met at tributaries of the Stroudwater River Saturday morning, despite the dreary weather, to launch a study of the river’s watershed conditions. By mid-June, the group members will have surveyed intersections and crossings along the 15.2 miles of waterway and 27 miles of watershed in Westbrook, Gorham, Scarborough, Portland and Buxton.

Heather True, project manager at the Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District, said the Stroudwater River watershed is not meeting state standards and is on the state Department of Environmental Protection’s priority list due to low dissolved oxygen levels, which affect life in the fresh body of water.

“We do a lot of surveys like this where we go out and look for polluted areas and then use the data to apply for funding to clean up those areas. We don’t have a lot of data on Stroudwater,” True said. “Based on the findings, we’ll pull together a management plan.”

True told the 20 volunteers what to look for and provided them with a “cheat sheet” for each site to mark off any visual damage they saw. Volunteers will then take photographs of the damage, attach it to the cheat sheet and return the whole packet back to the Soil & Water Conservation District by the middle of June.

Volunteers are looking for signs of land-based erosion, like exposed stones and roots; construction sites with erosion fences in place; fertilizer; trash; hanging, misaligned and otherwise damaged or blocked culverts; exposed pipes; and other unusual conditions like strange colors and smells coming from the water.

“I’m one who enjoys seeing the wildlife, and I don’t want it to disappear. That means keeping the freshwater river fresh and that takes volunteers,” said Genie O’Brien, a volunteer observing the watershed in Westbrook. “I’ve lived on the river for over 20 years. It’s gotten slower, browner. There seems to be a depletion in the water life. You can see the debris in the bottom when you’re canoeing or kayaking. There are fewer fish and seemingly fewer wading birds.”

During the first stop on Amy Lane in Westbrook, a homeowner passing by took a second to tell volunteers some of what he’s experienced in the last few years living on an embankment of a Stroudwater tributary, including continued erosion of his back yard.

“This is perfectly exemplifying what we are talking about here. There is land-based erosion and it was once a construction site that hasn’t been cleaned up. You can see the silt fence in there. If you were just driving by you’d never see this. What happens if we get 5 inches of rain?” said Joe Anderson, a project manager at York County Soil & Water Conservation District and volunteer helping study the land-use on the watershed.

What would happen is exactly what these studies are trying to prevent: more erosion, and more pollution in both the river and its downstream tributaries, affecting both the water life and the river itself, decreasing the water quality.

“It’s hard to encourage people to swim in the brown water, but we see it as a recreation site, a place for community gatherings,” O’Brien said.

According to information provided by the Cumberland County Soil & Water Conservation District, the population within the watershed has increased rapidly through the last 10 years. Westbrook has seen an 8.5 percent increase, Gorham has seen 15.8 percent rise and Scarborough has seen 14 percent growth. But that rapid growth has negatively affected the watersheds in the area.

The Stroudwater River area is home to a variety of Maine species, including the only known deer wintering area in Portland. Three trails meet in the area, and Westbrook’s new push for increased recreational usage of the city’s waterways also shine a spotlight on the importance of cleaning up rivers.

Increased development in the watershed and runoff from nearby roads and residential and commercial areas are the likely sources of pollution. The survey that the volunteers are working on now is the best way to identify and priorities sources of pollution influencing Stroudwater River so they may be addressed, according to the conservation district.

“The land use has really impacted the water quality. Urban streams are definitely under a lot of pressure,” said Anderson. “The idea is not to just get volunteers out here helping today, but to get them to really buy into it. By the end of the day, we want them to not be able to drive by the water without stopping and inspecting what’s wrong with it. We want a whole new group of stewards. I’ve done this for different groups all over and this is the first time there’s been one done so near my home.”

Eugenie Derham, another volunteer who lives in the Stroudwater area in Portland, said she attended the annual Stroudwater Village Association meeting last month and when it was announced that volunteers were being sought to help with this program, she jumped.

“We have our house right on the river and you do over time see things floating by. I don’t want to see the water get stagnant, so I came to lend a helping hand and another set of eyes,” Derham said.

According to Elizabeth Hoglund, former president of the Stroudwater Village Association, the river was mostly ignored by cleanup efforts until a dam broke off Westbrook Street in Portland nearly two years ago.

“When they drained the river, the residents who abut the river got very interested in the level of pollution. Sediment tests came back that you ought not to drink the water, but it’s safe to swim in it,” Hoglund said.

Hoglund said that’s a small victory, because more than a decade ago a similar test was done that showed the river wasn’t really fit for swimming.

To keep improvements on track, Hoglund and her neighbors sent out the call for volunteers to come and help do a survey of the river’s tributaries.

By June 16, all the sites around the watershed will be surveyed and the information will go back to True, who said the data will be processed by the end of the year.

“The results from this survey will be used to develop a watershed-based management plan that will both detail strategies to fix impact sites identified and to minimize future impacts,” True said. “Results from this survey may also show us where additional data gathering is needed.”

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