PORTLAND, Maine — Maine ranks 27th out of 30 states in beachwater quality according to a report released Thursday by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Beachwater quality in Maine declined from 2011 to 2012, according to “ Testing the Waters 2013: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches.” Last year there was a total of 194 beach closing or advisory days in Maine, up 73 percent from the year before.
According to the report, 11 percent of samples taken from 71 Maine beaches exceeded national standards of bacterial contamination at designated beaches in 2012.
Goodies Beach in Knox County, Riverside Beach in Ogunquit, Laite Beach in Knox County, Short Sands Beach in York County, Ferry Beach in Scarborough and Crescent Beach in Kittery exceeded the water quality standard the most, according to the report.
Knox County had the highest rate of water samples exceeding the health standard, at 30 percent. Sagadahoc County showed the lowest rate, with 3 percent of samples exceeding the standard, according to the report.
But Keri Kaczor of Maine Healthy Beaches said Thursday that the NRDC report skews the data and does not reflect “the nitty gritty” about Maine’s beaches.
Beaches in Maine that usually test clean are monitored less frequently, Kaczor said, and the state focuses more of their resources on beaches that are “high-risk” or have a history of issues. East End Beach in Portland, for example, is monitored several times a week. When beaches are resampled, she said, “Over 90 percent of the time they come back clean. That’s an indication for us that a beach is clean.”
“The [NRDC] ranking system ruffles feathers,” Kaczor said, adding that the report ranks Maine against states that monitor beaches 12 months of the year instead of just three, and “is not a fair assessment” of Maine’s beaches.
“Most of the beaches are safe and clean,” she said Thursday. “The ones that are problematic are where the rivers and streams meet the ocean. When it rains, there are problems.”
The report identifies higher than normal rainfall last year — and subsequent increased runoff — as one cause of the increased closures. Heavy rain can overwhelm sewage systems, causing raw sewage to seep into the ocean. Rainwater also picks up pollutants, including pesticides and animal waste, before flowing into the sea.
A release from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection also points to heavy rainfall — nearly double the amount in 2011 — as a cause of the number of water samples exceeding safety limits. Furthermore, the DEP notes that 80 percent of the advisories in 2012 lasted two days or less — the minimum time frame to allow for resampling and lab analysis — and nine of the reported days were pre-emptive based on rainfall levels rather than recorded bacterial levels.
But Emily Figdor, director of Environment Maine, said that despite a wetter-than-average season — other parts of the country were drier than usual — more tests in Maine than in other states violated health standards, which led to the drop in rank.
“I just disagree with Keri’s assessment,” Figdor said. “The measure that’s being used to compare Maine to other states is the percentage of times water is tested, and the percentage of times it violates the standard … the Healthy Beaches program in Maine does a good job at testing where contamination is most [focused]. However, there are lots of things the program isn’t doing that it should be. It should be testing beaches at least twice a week and always notifying the public when a water sample comes back having violated the health standard. That is not routinely done in Maine. They’re doing some things right, but there’s also a lot of room for improvement.”
Kaczor and Figdor both said federal funding for beach monitoring programs — currently slated to be eliminated from the budget — must be maintained, and Figdor appealed to Maine’s congressional delegation to ensure the money is appropriated.
Eliminating federal funding for the Maine Healthy Beaches program would eliminate state oversight and any unified structure for monitoring, assessing and notifying people about beaches, Kaczor said.
“Then the public would really have no knowledge of what the water quality is,” she said. “Even if there are problems, they won’t know and there won’t be any support to help fix it.”