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Report: Water quality runs the gamut at Cumberland County beaches

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Report: Water quality runs the gamut at Cumberland County beaches

CAPE ELIZABETH — Beaches in Cumberland County received a mixed bill of health in a national report, particularly in Scarborough, where beaches range from pristine to troubling.

The report was released June 27 by the National Resources Defense Council, just a week shy of the busiest vacation week in Vacationland.

Maine received poor marks overall. It was ranked 27th out of 30 coastal U.S. states, including the Great Lakes region.

Throughout the state, managers at 60 beaches – from Kittery to Roque Bluffs – took regular samples of seawater during the 2012 beach season. The samples were tested for enterococci, a bacteria commonly found in human and animal feces that can cause flu-like symptoms in swimmers.

The annual study found that 11 percent of Maine's samples in 2012 exceeded the state's maximum standard of 104 colonies per 100 milliliters of water.

Making matters worse, the 2013 beach season is already off to a rough start.

Poor water quality is associated with rainfall. A heavy rain can wash inland contaminants into the Gulf of Maine, where they end up at beaches. Last month was particularly wet in Cumberland County. In Portland, for instance, 7.3 inches of rain fell in June, which is four inches more than average, according to 30-year statistics from the National Weather Service.

As a result, Willard Beach in South Portland posted advisories from June 25 through July 2 due to unsafe conditions. East End Beach in Portland posted advisories from June 25 through 30 and was closed on July 1 and 2. During the same eight-day period, Higgins Beach in Scarborough posted five advisories.

Last year, eight beaches in Cumberland County participated in water testing. The results varied wildly, even within towns.

Cape Elizabeth beaches were about average with the state as a whole. When ranked by the lowest percentage of contaminated samples, Crescent Beach State Park and Kettle Cove were 33rd and 35th in the state, respectively, with 11 percent and 12 percent.

Other beaches in Casco Bay were at the lower end of the state rankings. Portland's East End Beach ranked 42nd with 13 percent of samples testing excessive. Winslow Park Beach in Freeport was 48th with 17 percent.

In Scarborough, results ran the gamut.

Scarborough Beach State Park was ranked one of Maine's cleanest, sharing the top spot with 23 other beaches that had zero samples in excess of the state standard for enterococci. Pine Point Beach was 16th with 6 percent. Higgins Beach was 30th with 8 percent.

Ferry Beach, at 55th with 24 percent, tied for fifth place as one of Maine's five most contaminated beaches. That list also included Goodies Beach in Knox County (44 percent), Riverside Beach in York County (26 percent), Laite Beach in Knox County (26 percent) and Short Sands Beach in York County (25 percent).

Coastal geography plays a huge role in water quality, said Zach Bergman, maintenance supervisor at Scarborough Beach State Park.

Highly ranked Scarborough Beach sits between moderately ranked Higgins Beach to the east and poorly ranked Ferry Beach to the west. Those surrounding beaches are in coves, while Scarborough Beach is a relatively straight shoreline facing open ocean. Each tide brings a fresh cycle of water to Scarborough Beach, while turnover is slower elsewhere where islands, heads and currents interfere with the exchange, Bergman said.

People also bring dogs go to the other beaches, but they're not allowed at Scarborough Beach State Park, Bergman said.

Bergman is one of two people at Scarborough Beach who collect water samples every week during the swimming season. For each sample, Bergman wades waist-deep into the ocean and uses tongs and bags to scoop the saltwater, which is part of a standard protocol in Maine. Next, the samples are sent to the Maine Healthy Beaches program, where they are tested.

Those tests came into question two seasons ago at Willard Beach in South Portland, beach manager Rick Towle said.

In the most recent report, Willard Beach was ranked at the top of the list, sharing the honor with Scarborough Beach and others. However, Willard Beach submitted fewer samples during that season because of discrepancies between the tests it performed independently and the tests done at the state during 2011.

"The protocol at the lab was inaccurate," Towle said. "It gave us numbers that were astronomically unusual. Until we could get it all straightened out, we decided to step back from the program."

Willard Beach re-entered the program in August 2012, and its samples were clean. But the results during that time period may not be representative of the whole, because there may have been little rainfall when the samples were taken, Towle said.

"It's only a snapshot in time," he said. "I don't want to set false expectations."

Towle said it's difficult to predict how Willard Beach will stack up next year, when a full season of samples will be available. In the past, Willard Beach has consistently been in the middle of the pack, but recent work by the Water Resource Protection department in South Portland may improve the yearly standing, Towle said.

In general, towns that have updated their waste-water systems have cleaner beaches, he said.

"Some communities have done an extraordinary job of storm-water separation and being able to get ahead of that issue," he said. "Other communities are still struggling with it and may not have had access to funding or resources to make that happen."

Some beaches can hit a bad run of luck through no fault of their own, Towle added. A discarded diaper or an animal carcass can skew results for days at a time and ruin a seasonal average.

Two days before the National Resources Defense Council released its report, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection released its own take on Vacationland's shores.

"During the 2012 beach season, 95.1 percent of total beach days were free of beach advisories or closures," the press release said.

Gov. Paul LePage trumpeted beach cleanliness in the same release.

"Maine's saltwater beaches are not only beautiful," he said, "but incredibly clean."

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.

2012 water quality results at Cumberland County beaches
Beach City Ranking* % of samples exceeding standards Closed or advisory days Monitoring frequency per week
Crescent Beach State Park Cape Elizabeth 33rd (two-way tie) 11% 2 1
East End Beach Portland 42nd (five-way tie) 13% 19 3
Ferry Beach Scarborough 55th (two-way tie) 24% 4 1
Higgins Beach Scarborough 30th (three-way tie) 8% 6 2
Kettle Cove Cape Elizabeth 35th (seven-way tie) 12% 0 1
Pine Point Scarborough 16th (nine-way tie) 6% 0 1
Scarborough Beach State Park Scarborough 1st (tied x 23) 0% 0 1
Willard Beach South Portland 1st (tied x 23) 0% 1 2
Winslow Park Freeport 48th (four-way tie) 17% 2 2
    *Ranked by lowest percent of samples that exceed the state maximum standard for enterococci (>104 per 100 mL). In total, 60 Maine beaches provided regular samples in 2012.