SOUTH PORTLAND — If all goes according to plan, there will be more bugs in the system.
The Trout Brook ecosystem, that is.
As he assessed conditions on the waterway that flows through the center of the city, South Portland Stormwater Program Coordinator Fred Dillon told city councilors at a Dec. 17 workshop the signs of recovery will be visible.
“We are not seeing the kinds of bugs we should see,” Dillon said.
He was outlining elements of the newly completed Trout Brook Watershed Management Plan, which Dillon, project scientist Kate McDonald of the Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation District, and Wendy Garland of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection believe can restore the health of the “urban impaired” watershed through fairly simple and cost-effective steps.
The urban impaired designation was made by DEP officials in 2004, meaning the watershed does not properly sustain life in its ecosystems as well as it could.
Efforts to restore the 2.35-mile watershed have been going on for more than a year. Dillon, McDonald and Garland collaborated on the management plan, funded with a $70,000 DEP grant and $20,000 each from Cape Elizabeth and South Portland.
The Trout Brook watershed has its source in Cape Elizabeth and includes Kimball Brook, which runs through Hinckley Park. Kimball Brook empties into Trout Brook off Highland Avenue and Ocean Street, and the watershed empties into the Fore River beyond Mill Creek Park.
Unlike efforts to restore the Long Creek watershed as it flows past the Maine Mall area into the Fore River, the management plan says Trout Brook can be restored by small changes including planting buffer zones in backyards to absorb nutrients now flowing into the brook, restricting use of manure and fertilizer on fields in Cape Elizabeth and using students to measure conditions like dissolved oxygen.
The high chloride levels in certain portions of the brook could be remedied by small changes in how salt and sand are stored at the South Portland Public Works facility on O’Neill Street. The iron levels in Kimball Brook could be naturally occurring. If true, the brook could be taken off the impaired list, Dillon said.
When remedies will cost money, McDonald told councilors, they would not be the first to be asked to contribute.
“We will try to get funding from everybody but the municipalities as much as possible,” he said.
A 2005 DEP survey of watershed conditions determined yard waste, stream bank erosion and a lack of adequate stream buffers contributed to the watershed impairment. According to the management plan, more than half the watershed, or about 750 acres, is in residential areas.
The brooks pass through areas of varied population density, including compact neighborhoods near the newly created Trout Brook Nature Preserve off Providence Avenue.
The preserve is about six acres of woods and wetlands set aside as a park by the South Portland Land Trust. The brook enters the preserve through a conduit beneath Providence Avenue and meanders toward Sawyer Street. Last spring, local students helped stock the area with trout, and the management plan reported anecdotal sightings of fish during the summer
But on the other side of the conduit, quaint homes built more than 50 years ago crowd the stream banks, which can lead to erosion and increased runoff. Farther upstream is the undeveloped Sawyer Marsh area, beyond that is more than 100 acres of land used for agriculture in South Portland and Cape Elizabeth.
The plan divides the watershed into upper, middle and lower segments with individual strategies to manage the sections.
In the upper, more agricultural section, Dillon said local farmers are already making voluntary efforts to curb the nutrient flow into the brook with barriers and more selective use of manure and fertilizers. The added nutrients reduce oxygen levels that sustain smaller organisms that build the aquatic food chain.
In the middle section above Sawyer Marsh, the same strategy can be used to restore dissolved oxygen levels. In the lower section of the watershed, high school and college students will help plant buffers and test water quality this summer.
There will also be workshops open to people living near the watershed to teach about better use of fertilizers and pesticides and planting rain gardens and other natural buffers to protect brook frontage from runoff.
Dillon’s presentation to councilors left Mayor Tom Blake optimistic recovery could be seen in less than a decade. Dillon did not disagree, and was confident recovery can be combined with economy.
“Fixes aren’t that big a deal in terms of expense,” he said.
Trout Brook courses under Providence Avenue in South Portland and into a newly created six-acre preserve. The preserve is part of state and local efforts to restore the health and habitat of the brook that runs from Cape Elizabeth through Mill Creek Park.