Testing reveals varied water quality of Presumpscot, tributaries

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WESTBROOK — Many of the popular recreational spots along the Presumpscot River from Sebago Lake to greater Portland fall below the state’s threshold for E. coli bacteria.

The announcement this week by the Presumpscot Regional Land Trust was based on water quality sampling in 2017. 

Between last May and September, more than 35 volunteers collected at least 10 water samples from 36 sites along the river. They measured E. coli (an indicator of possible fecal contamination), water temperature, and dissolved oxygen, which wildlife need to survive in the water.

Fred Dillon, president of Presumpscot River Watch, which merged with the Presumpscot Regional Land Trust in October 2016, said bacteria can be found in the river for a variety of reasons, including development near the watershed, nearby failing septic systems, as well as fecal matter from farm animals and other wildlife.

“There is a fairly loose connection between the extent of development and water quality,” said Dillon, who has been testing the Presumpscot watershed for the last 20 years. “How and where stuff gets built can affect water quality. Land use does matter.”

In a press release, Rachelle Curran Apse, executive director of the Presumpscot Regional Land Trust, said as the region hasd grown, so too have the recreational opportunities in the river. There are now more than 20 public access points in the river for paddling, swimming or fishing.

“Clean water is critical to safe recreation and for healthy wildlife habitat in the river,” Curran Apse said.

According to the land trust, 100 percent of the water samples taken at several popular recreation spots – including Dundee and Shaw Parks and the covered bridge in Windham, the boat launch by Saccarappa Falls and the city docks along the river in Westbrook, and a section of river near Riverton Trolley Park in Portland – met state bacteria levels and are safe for recreation.

But while many of the recreational spots along the river were within the state’s threshold, Curran Apse said the concerning news is “many of the tributaries of the Presumpscot River exceeded state standards for bacteria levels multiple times last summer.” She said work will be undertaken to improve conditions of those waters.

“There are concerning areas in most of the tributaries, which provides a lot of opportunity for collaboration between us, municipalities and other groups to look at conservation and restoration throughout the region,” she said. 

She said there are no specific projects in the works related to the water quality data, but representatives of the land trust will be sharing the results with officials in Standish, Windham, Gorham, Westbrook, Falmouth and Portland soon to find ways to partner in an effort to improve water quality.

“(The water samples) are very helpful for those who are interested in the river to determine how clean the water is, but they are just a snapshot in time. When you start putting that data together, you can see trends,” Dillon said. The Presumpscot River Watch has been monitoring the health of the Presumpscot River watershed since 1989.

The state uses the data from the water samples to, according to the release, “identify rivers and streams that do not attain state standards and works with partners to develop restoration plans that address potential water quality problems in the watershed.

“Volunteer groups like the Presumpscot Regional Land Trust often collect water quality samples from locations that are not regularly monitored by our staff,” said Mary Ellen Dennis, who coordinates Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s volunteer river monitoring program. “This allows us to have a better idea of water quality conditions for a broader geographic area.”

Dillon said the merging of his group and the land trust offers a much more robust team of volunteers for the Water Stewards program.

“Presumpscot River Watch is a more modest number of volunteers. Now we are with the Presumpscot Regional Land Trust, there is a larger capacity for testing and more volunteers,” Dillon said. “With the increased capacity, we hope to start doing follow-ups to identify potential sources of contamination.”

Curran Apse said along with testing the water quality of the Presumpscot River, the Water Stewards this spring and summer will also be testing the quality of water in four sites along the Stroudwater River in Westbrook and Portland. She said it will be the first time the river has had state-certified annual testing.

“It will be great to add that information to the other watershed data,” she said.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mkelleynews.

The section of the Presumpscot River that runs through downtown Westbrook is one of the areas tested last year that fell below the state’s maximum threshold for E. coli bacteria.