The cleanliness of Maine’s coastal waters became the subject of a bizarre debate recently. Environment Maine criticized the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in a press conference by saying that beachgoers are not warned each time a test shows water quality dipping below the state safety threshold.
It might sound like a good idea to post a beach each time a test shows high bacteria levels, but it’s not practical.
Posting an advisory or closing a beach requires more than one day of testing, as the situation can change quickly. The important thing is to determine a trend of high bacteria levels and take other factors into consideration, such as rainfall, which flushes pollutants downstream. Even then, it’s not up to the DEP to close a beach but the local beach managers.
It would be more effective for Environment Maine — and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which joined the press conference — to help efforts already underway to educate officials and residents in beach towns about how to limit enterococcus bacteria, which indicates fecal matter from animals or humans.
Beach towns can keep trying to curb the enterococcus bacteria by reminding people to pump their septic tanks regularly and by replacing old sewer lines. Officials can talk to farmers who might be storing fertilizers too close to the shore.
Beachgoers can do their part by taking children to the bathroom and using swim diapers, disposing of trash and pet waste and not discharging untreated boat sewage.
Samantha DePoy-Warren, a spokesperson for the DEP, was right to be baffled by Environment Maine’s confrontational tone. Data from the department show that water quality at public beaches in 2011 was better than in 2010 and 2009.
The DEP lists actions to improve wastewater infrastructure in Lincolnville, restoration efforts in the Cape Neddick River and the expansion of sewer infrastructure in Ogunquit as examples of initiatives leading to enhanced water quality.
In fact, it’s a good time to thank the volunteers, municipal workers and state park employees who monitor Maine’s 61 public beaches each week between Memorial Day and Labor Day and to point out that specific actions to limit bacteria should continue. Clean beaches not only benefit the overall environment and keep beachgoers healthy but boost Maine’s tourism industry and economy.
More than two-thirds of Maine’s beaches had no water-quality problems in 2011 that led to an advisory or closure. The beaches, which comprise more than 30 miles of coastline, were open and safe for swimming 98.2 percent of the time, according to the DEP, which manages the Maine Healthy Beaches program.
More data are needed before a long-term trend can be established, however. From 2005 to 2011, the safety threshold — the maximum bacteria concentration level considered safe — was exceeded an average of 9.6 percent of the time, according to the program. The most recent data from 2011 show the rate at 8.8 percent.
The state’s beaches had a good year in 2011, but more work is needed. It will involve educating the public and continuing to fix faulty sewer infrastructure. Environment Maine is in a good position to join the effort. The state’s beaches are a resource worth protecting.