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South Portland's Willard Beach among 10 dirtiest in the state in 2009

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South Portland's Willard Beach among 10 dirtiest in the state in 2009

SOUTH PORTLAND — Temperatures were in the upper 80s on Wednesday afternoon, as more than 100 people sunned themselves at Willard Beach.

A few brave souls plunged head-first into the ocean to escape the oppressive humidity, while dozens more waded knee deep along the shoreline. 

When asked about the water, swimmers said it was cold, chilly and refreshing.

But dirty?

That was the conclusion of a report issued last week by Environment Maine, a statewide, citizen-based environmental advocacy organization.

The report indicated that beaches in the state are getting dirtier. Coastal beach closings and advisories in 2009 increased 47 percent, from 250 to 170 over the previous year.

Eleven percent of all beach water samples exceed the state's standards for bacteria levels.

Willard Beach, according to the report, was the only Cumberland County beach to make the Top 10 worst for water quality.

Twenty-one percent of Willard Beach's 87 water samples were higher than the state standard. The beach, which placed 10th overall, was closed or placed under an advisory 23 days in 2009.

The East End Beach in Portland, meanwhile, was closed or posted an advisory 24 days last year, but only exceeded state standards in 12 percent of its 42 samples.

While the report does not identify the cause of increased bacteria levels, South Portland Treatment Systems Manager Jim Jones, who oversees water testing at the beach, said the cause of last year's spike was likely the amount of rain.

"We had a pretty wet summer," Jones said. "When we get a good heavy thunderstorm, we seem the bacteria numbers go up on the beach."

There are several storm-water pipes jutting from the sand that released storm water into the water off the beach.

Jones said the city tests the water twice a week, on Monday and Wednesday. Lifeguards, who are trained by Maine Healthy Beaches, collect three water samples along the beach and send them to the city Water Resource Protection Department for analysis.

Jones said the department tests for Enterococcis, which indicates the presence of fecal matter in the water and can cause a variety of secondary infections.

"If those are present, then there's fecal material present from warm-blooded animals," he said. "It could be birds, sea gulls or human waste, but it doesn't differentiate."

Willard Beach allows dogs early in the morning and at night throughout the summer and all day during the rest of the year.

It takes about 24 hours to get a bacteria culture, Jones said. If levels are high, the Recreation Department is alerted, so officials can determine whether to close the beach.

Every closure or advisory is reported to Maine Healthy Beaches, which maintains a statewide database.

Hannah Hunter, a Wiscasset resident who is taking classes at Southern Maine Community College, was wading along the shoreline when told about the report's findings.

"Gross," the 22-year-old said as she headed for dry land. "I'm not going back in there."

Most swimmers on Wednesday, however, didn't care about the report.

South Portland resident Eliza Nichols was packing up her belongs while keeping a close eye on her 2-year-old son, Jasper, who was splashing in shallow water.

Nichols, who had been swimming that day, said she comes to Willard Beach about once a week. She wasn't surprised to hear the beach was named one of the dirtiest in the state.

"It doesn't surprise me. There's a city runoff drain right there," she said. "We know it's probably not the cleanest beach."

Nichols said cleanliness is relative and the report would not keep her from returning.

"I used to live in L.A.," she said. "I used to go swimming in that ocean, too."

While 2009 was not a banner year for Willard Beach, as of Wednesday there had been no beach closings this season. Swimmers had been placed under advisory only four times this year.

That means the green flag has been flying above the Beach House more often this year, which is good news to swimmers.

"I just go by the flag," Nichols said. "If it's green, I assume it's safe to go in."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net