Public reaction to December’s announcement of a No Discharge Zone for Casco Bay showed that people are fond of their bay and care about its health, but retain a healthy skepticism about efforts to restore or maintain the bay’s environmental quality. About boat waste in particular, people wondered aloud how flushing a few boat heads could make a difference.

No single water quality improvement will “Save the Bay,” but collectively, a number of improvements are already making a difference. And yes, prohibiting vessel discharges will help.

The key to success, nearly everyone believes, is instilling a sense of responsibility and action on the part of shoreside towns, industries and individuals.

The task is complicated by facts of history and nature. Unlike many estuaries, Casco Bay is the receiving water body for multiple streams and rivers around its rim from Cape Elizabeth to Phippsburg. Not really one estuary technically, Casco Bay is rather a collection of estuaries that for centuries has both enjoyed and suffered the activities of Maine’s highest density of population and industry.

Karen Young, director of the Casco Bay Estuary Project, says that in the eight years since publication of the Casco Bay Plan, a lot of people are interested in the current state of Casco Bay. In preparation for a full-blown state-of-the-bay report and conference next fall, Young says, “We’re approaching the question from two angles: using measurements, as in water quality sampling data; and using more general metrics, such as how much have we reduced sewer overflow and stormwater impacts, how much habitat is being gobbled up by development, how much habitat have we protected and how much was lost, and how much new impervious surface (parking lots and buildings) have we created, thereby increasing stormwater inputs. You could also view it from a regulatory angle: are more clam flats open today than five years ago, or have public swimming beaches been closed more or less frequently than before?”

Under the Microscope

Nonprofit Friends of Casco Bay is the bay’s most focused and active non-government voice. Since 1991, Baykeeper Joe Payne has led the charge for its 1,600 members. In his quiet, imperturbable way Payne has become the player and partner whose effective rallying, cajoling and arm bending skills have served to advance public debate rather than dominate it. There are other Friends groups around the bay as well – Friends of the Royal River and the Presumpscot River, each with its own board and corps of volunteers who rally around their smaller piece of the watershed. In so doing, they enliven people’s awareness and affection for the many resources of which Casco Bay is a composite.

Governments (plural) are highly engaged in the health of the bay, from state resource agencies (Environmental Protection, Marine Resources, State Planning) and federal partners like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Falmouth-based Gulf of Maine Coastal and Estuary Program, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The Casco Bay Estuary Project employed EPA funds to rally federal, state, and local partners around the common goal of developing, then implementing a management plan for Casco Bay focusing on areas of highest priority at the time: stormwater, toxic pollution, habitat protection, and non-point source pollution. Since its completion in 1996 the Casco Bay Plan has been implemented, and over time progress is being made, according to Diane Gould, EPA coordinator for the Estuary Project.

“There shouldn’t be significant bacteria coming from [sewage] treatment plants anymore,” says Gould. “Now that we largely have a handle on point sources, were chipping away at non-point sources to identify and address problems. Typically the bacteria is coming from non-point sources like failing septic systems, animal waste, farm runoff, or from boats. Where there’s a marina, you’ll see higher levels of bacteria.”

In response, the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) closes shellfish beds to harvesting in the vicinity of marinas to protect public health from bacterial or viral contamination. And by broadening the focus from marinas to the entirety of Casco Bay, the No Discharge Zone goes a step further, prohibiting sewage from being dumped anywhere in state waters (within three miles of shore).

Fertile Waters

How could a few boats make a difference in the overall water quality of Casco Bay? According to Baykeeper Joe Payne, there are real signs in greater Portland of diminished water quality, and even a lay person can observe the indicators. “Five years ago, crossing the Casco Bay Bridge at low tide in summertime, if you looked down at the mudflats you would see brown-black mud,” says Payne. “Now you see emerald green algae. A perfect indication of nutrient pollution.”

We don’t tend to think of nutrients as pollution; fertilizers are something we apply, not fear. But excess Nitrogen in a marine ecosystem can cause problems, and Payne says it is time to consider these excessive loads of nutrient runoff as what they are: pollution. Any water running into the bay carries nutrients. With more lawns, parking lots and development, the cumulative load is becoming too much for natural flushing cycles to handle. Since treating all of the runoff from a rainfall is impossible, clean water advocates have to look to where even small changes can make a difference. Boats represent one human source that can be addressed.

“In greater Portland, the treatment plants can’t move. We should ensure they work right, but then why would we allow a ship to come inshore and dump its waste?” says Payne. “The ships are mobile sewage sources that can close a valve to divert sewage to a holding tank. Most are only in state waters six to eight hours.”

The Port of Portland welcomes about 700 ships per year. Some 800-foot ships carry 24 people, some 5,000, depending on whether said ship is a tanker or a cruise ship. “They are a mobile [sewage] source that we can control without putting millions of dollars into a stormwater control plan,” Payne explains. “Why allow them to add to the problem when they can move offshore and dump it out there? Because there are real signs in Greater Portland of diminished water quality.”

What else poses a threat to the bay’s health? Karen Young of the Estuary Project points to the problem of marine invasive species that was below the radar just ten years ago. Asian shore crabs, alien seaweeds (Codium, or Deadmans fingers), and Sea Squirts have arrived in Maine, and “once they’re here they can really take hold,” says Young. “We don’t know the consequence, but there could be significant ecological and economic impact, so we have to work on the prevention.”

A problem closer to home but no less challenging to overcome, says EPA’s Gould, are the thousands of lifestyle choices individuals make every day – about driving, land use, fertilizer and pesticide use or waste disposal – that have a direct impact on the environment. The Maine DEP keeps a list of watersheds and coastal areas of particular concern, and many are in Casco Bay: the Royal, Cousins, and Harraseeket River estuaries and Maquoit Bay are all listed as priority coastal waters on that list; the Presumpscot and Stroudwater Rivers are listed as priority rivers and streams.

“The reason that so many high-priority watersheds and rivers are around Casco Bay is that that’s where the people are, at the highest density,” explains Gould. “People are where pollution come from. Where there are people there are impervious surfaces, polluted runoff, industry, and treatment plants dealing with human waste.”

According to Gould, growing awareness on the part of municipal officials is beginning to make a difference. Educating and reaching out to individual citizens – perhaps a slower, messy and less targeted enterprise, will gradually make a measurable difference. “Protecting the natural health of your own back yard is not easy and sometimes it runs counter to what people think they want,” says EPA’s Gould. “Education is a big part – creating awareness. The tools are out there.” Now it’s a matter of getting the tools to groups and individuals who care about Casco and can pass it on. Step by step and boat by boat, Casco Bay is coming clean.