PORTLAND — In 1995, Friends of Casco Bay bought a boat equipped with a sewage pump-out system, and began offering a mobile pump-out service to recreational and some commercial boats.
The service was much needed, said the organization’s citizens steward coordinator, Peter Milholland.
“In those days, people weren’t oriented to doing pump-outs,” he said. “They discharged sewage into the water. People would say they’d get swimmer’s rash from being in the water. There were times you could see raw sewage in the bay. No one knew what that impact was.”
Over the past 19 years, the 21-foot boat, the Baykeeper II, has kept more than 110,000 gallons of raw sewage out of the water. This past season, running mid-May through October, Baykeeper II made 570 service calls, removing 18,000 gallons of sewage. In addition, the Department of Environmental Protection today funds 21 shoreside pump-out stations around the bay.
Jim Splude, a native of Portland with nearly 20 years of experience working in and around marinas, has run the boat since 2010. The number of calls varies, peaking at perhaps 20 per day in the summer. He also pumps a couple of shoreside systems.
As a kid growing up swimming at East End Beach in Portland, Splude can provide personal testimony to the transformation in water quality.
“The difference is fabulous,” he said. “The smell was always there. Now, the beach is much more useable.”
These days, customers are receptive to the service.
“It definitely makes it easier on them,” he said. “And I find, if I get one customer, they recommend it to others.”
Friends of Casco Bay is an environmental organization working to improve and protect the bay’s environmental health through education, advocacy, water quality monitoring programs, and partnerships.
In 2006, thanks to the organization’s efforts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated Casco Bay as the state’s first no-discharge zone under the Clean Water Act, making it illegal to dump treated or untreated boat sewage within three miles of the coast. This action was aimed at regulating the partially treated sewage discharges from a growing number of cruise ships making port calls in Portland.
Casco Bay is a 985-square-mile watershed for 42 municipalities, including Maine’s largest city, Portland. Nearly 20 percent of Maine’s population lives in the watershed of 12 significant lake and river systems. The bay proper extends along 578 miles of shoreline; its water surface encompasses nearly 200 square miles.
As the state’s most densely populated area with major industries in shipping, tourism, and fishing, the bay attracts approximately 5,000 recreational boats per year, and cruise ships whose numbers grew from one in 1989 to 51 in 2014.
In 2009, the EPA designated in Maine four more no-discharge zones: the Boothbay region, Kennebunk-Wells, southern Mount Desert Island and portions of the Cranberry Isles, and western Penobscot Bay.
BOAT SEWAGE, DISEASE
According to the EPA, boat sewage degrades water quality by introducing microorganisms, nutrients, and chemical products. Microorganisms may introduce diseases like hepatitis, and can contaminate shellfish beds. Nutrients depress oxygen levels, thus stressing aquatic animals. Chemical products can be toxic to aquatic life.
Today, boatyards and marinas over a certain size are required to offer pump-out services; there are almost 100 pump-out stations in Maine, and at least four other pump-out boats—two operated by the towns of Boothbay Harbor and Camden, one by Up Harbor Marine in Tremont, and a new one in Harpswell. Pump-out programs are 75 percent funded through the Clean Vessel Act, passed by Congress in 1992 to reduce vessel discharge. The act sets a maximum fee of $10 that may be charged to recreational boaters for the service.
“When we started the pump-out program, there was only one pump-out station,” Milholland said. “A marina had a portable system they would bring to the end of their dock.”
Few boaters used the system, he said.
“We wanted to come up with a way to have it be more convenient, that people would use,” he said. “Our idea was to have something mobile and relatively easy, so someone could make a phone call or, nowadays, a text message, ‘Could you put me on your list to do a pump-out?'”
The new program involved educating boaters about the impact of raw sewage in the bay.
The outcome? “It’s been tremendous,” Milholland said.
Other causes of pollution remain. Increasingly common is torrential rain. As runoff floods city streets and overwhelms sewage treatment systems, millions of gallons of polluted water pour into Casco Bay.
The organization’s water quality monitoring program—launched in 1992 by Joe Payne, a marine biologist hired under the title of baykeeper—uses a network of volunteers and staffers who annually sample stations around the bay for various parameters, including dissolved oxygen, water clarity, and pH. This year’s report indicates problems with excess nitrogen near the shore, coming from land-based sources such as polluted stormwater runoff and sewage treatment plants. Nitrogen pollution comes from fertilizers from neighborhoods and farms, smokestacks and tailpipes, failing septic systems, wastewater treatment plants, and combined sewer overflows that divert raw sewage into the bay when it rains.
According to the organization’s 2014 report, Casco Bay’s water quality is good overall, but there are instances when low oxygen, low pH and murky waters are cause for concern. More than 20 percent of sampled sites are considered poor, but more than 40 percent meet the “good” standard.
Collecting long-term data has proven critical to Friends’ education and advocacy for changes in government regulations, business practices, community efforts and individual lifestyle in order to combat threats.
“I think we’re lucky in Maine,” said Milholland, “because we tend to have colder waters. We’ve seen areas like the Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound have consistent problems with water quality. In tracking long-term health, our focus is to say, ‘OK, things are good now. But we need to keep an eye on it so it doesn’t worsen.'”