SACO – For many weeks this summer, the bacteria counts at the mouth of Goosefare Brook, which separates Kinney Shores in Saco from Ocean Park, were higher than what is considered safe for swimming.
Now, a sign on the Kinney Shores side of the brook, which was placed there by the Ocean Park Conservation Society, indicates that within the last couple of weeks, water sampling has again shown that “unacceptable levels of bacterial content” were found and the “water may not be safe for recreational contact.”
Officials with the town of Old Orchard Beach and the Maine Healthy Beaches Program say they are well aware of the problem with high Enterococci counts, but also say this is not an issue with any easy fix.
New Old Orchard Beach Town Manager Larry Mead said this week that the level of bacterial counts in Ocean Park and the Goosefare is “a priority for the Town Council (and is) also an issue that I am personally committed to.”
Mead added, “I look forward to working with staff and the community to tackle the issue and arrive at solutions. The town will be working between now and the next beach season to do an assessment of this beach area, working with the Maine Healthy Beaches Program and the neighborhood.”
Meagan Sims, the southern Maine field coordinator for Maine Healthy Beaches, said any bacterial counts above 104 colonies per 100 milliliters of water would exceed the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s safety limits for recreational water contact.
According to the program’s own data, a water sample taken at Goosefare Brook on Sept. 3, showed an Enterococci count of 426; one in mid-August showed a count of 650 and one in early July showed a count of 663.
Mead said many of these tests were done after a heavy rain, but that is no consolation for John Bird, chairman of the Ocean Park Conservation Society, which works with Maine Healthy Beaches to sample the water.
He said this week that high bacterial counts in and near Goosefare Brook have been a problem for at least three years, but it’s been difficult to get either Old Orchard Beach or Saco officials to do anything.
Bird also said more in-depth testing done by the Environmental Protection Agency has shown the water contains traces of caffeine, nicotine and prescription medications, which means the contamination is “a human pollution problem.”
His fear is that town government is not acting fast enough to find the source of the pollution.
“We’ve had too many meetings and planning and too little action. We have a serious contamination problem and people are not paying attention,” he said.
Bird is also concerned that a plan for the town of Old Orchard Beach to work with property owners in Ocean Park this fall is too little, too late, with many homeowners already closing up their seasonal cottages.
This week, Mead said the short-term goal is to do testing of septic systems in the neighborhoods adjacent to Goosefare Brook to determine if any of them may be a source of the bacteria contaminants.
“The town will make every effort to identify and eliminate possible sources prior to next year’s beach season,” he added.
In the long term, Mead said, Old Orchard Beach and Saco have jointly applied for a state grant “to study the watershed area in order to ensure the environmental integrity of this resource.”
In the meantime, anyone using the beaches in Ocean Park and Kinney Shores, especially the areas near Goosefare Brook, should “take precautions, particularly after heavy rainfall for a 24- to 48-hour period,” according to Mead.
And Sims said any Enterococci count above 104 “indicates that there is an increased probability of contracting illness from the water.”
Both Mead and Sims said possible sources of the contamination could be leaky sewers, faulty cross connections between the sewer and storm drainage networks or malfunctioning septic systems, along with non-point sources, including runoff.
Portions of Goosefare Brook run through the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge off Route 9 in Saco, but portions of the stream also run through populated areas in both Saco and Old Orchard Beach.
Sims said to determine the source or sources of the pollution, a combination of methods could be used. Some of the available methods include using cameras to examine the integrity of the sewer system or using smoke and dye testing to ensure homes are appropriately tied into the sewer.
In order to prevent contamination in the first place, Sims said, people should properly maintain and pump out their septic systems, they should not dump waste of any kind into or around the watershed, they should practice responsible pet waste management and they should follow low-impact development methods, including reducing impervious surfaces to help minimize runoff.
She said the role of Maine Healthy Beaches, which is a program of the UMaine Cooperative Extension, is to conduct routine monitoring of beaches from Kittery to Mount Desert Island, with the goal of monitoring water quality and protecting public health.
The initiative provides training and support for volunteers to do routine beach monitoring, assessment of the data collected and notification when levels exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold. The program also conducts education and outreach initiatives, according to Sims.
“Remediating contamination is an ongoing process and often isn’t a quick fix,” she said. “It requires the effective collaboration (of) various entities to be successful.”