LINCOLNVILLE, Maine — As the sun beat down Wednesday afternoon on the tiny, rocky beach at the mouth of the Ducktrap River, a few children swam and played under the watchful eyes of their parents and grandparents.
The scene appeared idyllic, but according to a report released Wednesday by the Portland-based advocacy group Environment Maine, there’s a problem with the state’s beaches that can’t always be seen by the naked eye.
Beach closings and health advisories due to pollution increased by 47 percent in Maine from 2008 to 2009, according to the report, which named 10 beaches — including the Ducktrap River beach — as having the worst track records for exceeding the state’s daily maximum bacterial standards level in 2009.
“This report is very alarming, but pollution in beach water is very preventable. What’s needed are more resources and stronger rules from the feds to reduce stormwater pollution,” Emily Figdor, director of Environment Maine, said Wednesday. “People shouldn’t have to choose between swimming in sewage and staying out of the water.”
The study uses information from the Natural Resource Defense Council’s 20th annual beach water quality report, which said that one of the state’s other most polluted beaches is Goodies Beach in Rockport Harbor. The others are in southern Maine.
Numbers for 2010 are not yet available. Data is submitted in the fall and then processed.
One major reason that bacteria numbers jumped in 2009 is the fact that it was a very rainy summer with almost 25 inches of rainfall, or 2½ times more than usual, according to Keri Lindberg, the coordinator for Maine Healthy Beaches.
That program is funded by a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant and brings together communities to perform standardized monitoring of beach water quality. Its data were submitted to the EPA last fall and used for the annual report.
“What happens when it rains is that everything drains to the shoreline,” Lindberg said. “It’s dog waste, malfunctioning septic systems, manure, wildlife waste.”
She said that it rained so much in 2009 that areas which usually never see problematic bacteria levels had “all kinds of problems.” Lindberg suggested that a good rule of thumb would be to avoid swimming during or after rainstorms.
“But take the top 10 list with a grain of salt,” she said. “We really have great water quality in Maine.”
Lindberg’s program monitors the water quality of 60 beaches in Maine, primarily “big, sandy, public, high-use beaches.”
That disqualifies beaches such as the one at the mouth of the Ducktrap River.
“The town is not promoting it as a swimming area,” she said. “It is a local resource.”
Although volunteers with Maine Healthy Beaches had been measuring the bacteria levels there at least once a week, town administrator David Kinney said that was reduced to a monthly measurement in July.
Lincolnville officials have been searching for years for the reason bacteria levels are so high there, he said.
“I’d love to know the answer,” Kinney said. “We have done a shoreline survey. We have visited every property in lower Ducktrap and inspected septic systems.”
Despite all that, they can’t figure out what’s causing the bacteria — and that, in turn, has caused some concern. There are no signs that point visitors to Ducktrap Park, and town officials don’t feel comfortable about promoting it as a resource until they have more answers about why its water quality is not the best.
“When people think of Lincolnville, they think of the beach,” Kinney said. “In summertime, it’s a destination. We obviously value the beach and we value people coming to the area. We’d like them to have a healthy experience.”
Although the town has posted an advisory sign in Ducktrap Park, it wasn’t immediately obvious Wednesday afternoon, a day with many kids, dogs, families and activity at the mouth of the river.
Arthur and Rebecca Tracy of Belfast and their 7-year-old granddaughter, Bella Tracy of Lincolnville, were enjoying the sunshine and warmer river water.
“We do come here a lot,” Arthur Tracy said. “As far as the water quality’s concerned — I’ve never run across any reports that would indicate it’s polluted.”
The Tracys said they pay attention to environmental health risks. The family had considered going biking that day but decided against it after hearing about poor air quality that was predicted.
“We decided it would be a beach day instead,” he said.
Top Maine sites for high bacteria levels
“Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches” analyzes EPA data on water quality at public-access beaches in Maine and around the country.
The 10 beaches in Maine with the highest percentage rates for exceeding daily maximum bacterial standards in 2009 were:
Goodies Beach, Knox County (37 percent)
Ducktrap River, Waldo County (28 percent)
Ogunquit, York County (27 percent)
Cape Neddick Beach, York County (26 percent)
York Harbor Beach, York County (26 percent)
Gooches Beach, York County (23 percent)
Libby Cove Beach, York County (22 percent)
Middle Beach, York County (22 percent)
Sea Point Beach, York County (21 percent)
Willard Beach, Cumberland County (21 percent)
• The number of beach closings and health advisory days jumped to 250 in 2009, a 47 percent increase over 2008 (170 days).
• Eleven percent of all reported beach-water samples in 2009 exceeded the state’s daily maximum bacterial standards. Nationwide, 7 percent of all samples exceeded health standards in 2009.