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Op/Ed:Working for Healthy Water Quality Along Maine’s Beaches

Release Date: 06/21/2007
Contact Information: Contact: David Deegan, (617) 918-1017

(Boston - 6-21-07) - Maine’s short but sweet beach season is always highly anticipated – signaling summer’s treats, like fresh blueberries and the renowned refreshing, cool Maine coastal water.

From late May until after Labor Day, residents and visitors gather with family and friends to bask in Maine’s beaches pastimes – wading, surfing, kite-flying, building sand castles, and of course, swimming. For good reason, beaches are the number one tourist destination in New England.

Unfortunately, carefree days at the beach are not always without risk. Beachgoers sometimes arrive at the coast only to find a sign saying: “Warning: swimming and water contact activities are not advised at this time.”

This certainly hampers the spirit of the season and leaves people wondering: “Why is the water unsafe for swimming?” The answer is contaminated water. Sometimes, fecal contamination from both humans and animals ends up in beach water. It gets there from failing septic systems, sewage treatment plant overflows, illegal connections to sewers and from boat discharges. In many cases, pollutants arrive from storm water pipes, washing pollutants that accumulate in streets and degraded coastal streams directly onto or near beaches.

To solve this problem, EPA is working with local and state governments to expand beach monitoring and reduce beach closures caused by bacterial contamination at beaches and freshwater lakes in New England.

Since 2002, EPA has awarded over $1 million to the Maine Healthy Beaches program – money that assists efforts to monitor water quality at beaches, notify the public about risks and to assess the sources of contamination that may cause these risks. Maine’s program has been very effective – more than 40 coastal beaches are now monitored, up from fewer than 10 in 2001. Thanks to this program, people can check water quality at the beach and on the Web.

Our efforts to step up monitoring and reporting have also contributed to more beaches being closed due to impaired water quality. Last summer in Maine, 19 out of 43 monitored beaches were closed for one or several days because of water pollution, for a total of 150 days.

Increased monitoring and reporting have also provided important data to key officials. Based on the results of the monitoring, the Maine Healthy Beaches program has discovered, mapped, and in some cases reduced pollution sources at beaches from the mid-coast in Lincolnville, on down to Kennebunkport. Local community groups in towns like Bar Harbor and Biddeford are also helping these efforts.

The ultimate goal – to consistently reduce beach closures – still needs additional work to accomplish. The key challenge is identifying the sources of pollution leading to the beach closure, particularly when “non-point” sources are involved, and then securing adequate funding for extensive infrastructure improvements or other remedial actions.

Although EPA has provided technical assistance to our coastal states for many years, we are increasing our efforts this year to develop action plans for those communities with chronic contamination problems. EPA’s goal is to eliminate chronic beach closures across New England. We are working with state and local officials to develop and implement aggressive efforts to remove sources of contamination, and to build public support to fund necessary improvements to sewer systems.

If you’re concerned that a local beach is closed due to unhealthy bacteria levels, what can you do? Urge your local officials to diagnose the problem and then fix it – sometimes, the solution is as simple as fixing a broken sewer pipe or cleaning catch basins. Make sure septic systems are properly maintained, and report illicit discharges or sewer connections to officials. When walking your dog, be sure to pick up and throw away your pet’s waste – don’t let it go into storm drains and foul up your community’s beach water. If you are a boater, use a pump out facility.

We New Englanders are lucky to live near some of the most beautiful coastal areas found anywhere. We are also fortunate that we live in a region where so many people care about having a clean and healthy environment. Together, we can keep all of Maine’s beaches healthy and safe and enjoy a truly carefree day at the beach.

More information:

EPA’s
Beach initiative, including links to state beach programs (http://www.epa.gov/region1/eco/beaches/)

Maine Healthy Beaches program (http://www.mainehealthybeaches.org/)

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