2015-10-16 / Front Page

Bloom boom

Couple raises alarm over pollutants on Willard
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Although a recent algae bloom on Willard Beach has abated in the past week, Natalie West points to what remains as the telltale evidence of its encroachment, evidence of just how extensive the outbreak was and how much more needs to be done to control nitrogen runoff from properties in the watershed area. (Courtesy photo) Although a recent algae bloom on Willard Beach has abated in the past week, Natalie West points to what remains as the telltale evidence of its encroachment, evidence of just how extensive the outbreak was and how much more needs to be done to control nitrogen runoff from properties in the watershed area. (Courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Rob Sellin and Natalie West live just a stone’s throw away from Willard Beach. Literally. Throw a rock from almost anywhere along the shore and you can hit their roof.

So it’s no surprise that the couple walks the beach daily and pays close attention to its ebb and flow. But they’re more than just passive observers. Eight times each summer they collect water samples at the Southern Maine Community Campus pier as volunteer data collectors for the Friends of Casco Bay.

Generally, the health of the bay has been improving since the 1980s, when a report entitled “Troubled Waters” labeled Casco Bay as one of the most polluted estuaries in the nation, prompting formation of the Friends in 1989. So, came as a great surprise to Sellin and West three weeks ago when they hit the beach one morning to discover a large algae outbreak.


Deake Street resident Rob Sellin shows off his back lawn, given over from traditional grass to clover, which does a better job of capturing and controlling the runoff of nitrogen and other pollutants into nearby Willard Beach. (Courtesy photo) Deake Street resident Rob Sellin shows off his back lawn, given over from traditional grass to clover, which does a better job of capturing and controlling the runoff of nitrogen and other pollutants into nearby Willard Beach. (Courtesy photo) A bright blanket smothered the beach, primarily below the high-tide line, in a layer of algae known colloquially as green slime.

“This was bigger than it’s ever been,” Sellin said. “We’re very concerned.”

Sellin and West immediately notified the Friends of Casco Bay and, although the bloom has since abated, concern remains that fertilizer runoff from area lawns – socalled “nutrient loading” – could impact the health of the beach, which most residents agree has come a long way from the days when South Portland dumped raw, untreated effluent out of sewage pipes at the beach.


A bright green algae bloom creates a blanket of slime on Willard Beach in this Oct. 1 photo, giving rise to concerns that, despite recent remediation efforts, pollution remains a problem in South Portland. (Courtesy photo) A bright green algae bloom creates a blanket of slime on Willard Beach in this Oct. 1 photo, giving rise to concerns that, despite recent remediation efforts, pollution remains a problem in South Portland. (Courtesy photo) Although green algae is a normal and healthy part of coastal seaweed systems, too much is a sign of an ecosystem out of balance.

“Excess nutrients, nitrogen in particular, can lead to a host of negative impacts,” said Mike Doan, a Friends research associate, in a recent beachside interview.

“Apart from the nuisance of the smell, it can choke out things that are trying to live underneath it, like clams and other things that live in the sediment,” Doan said. “It can also lead to low oxygen events, know as hypoxia, and an increase in carbon dioxide as organic matter starts to decay from a large algae bloom, and that can lead to acidification.

According to Doan, about 36 percent of the nitrogen load in Casco Bay comes from human sewage. However, South Portland has made great strides on that front in recent years, as it has rebuilt overflow pipes to keep stormwater runoff out of sewer pipes that had caused the system to overflow during heavy rain.

“That’s appreciated and we celebrate it every day,” Sellin said.

Another 31 percent is leached out of the atmosphere from vehicle and industrial emissions.

But 33 percent comes from non-sewer runoff, as rains flush deposits on lawns and streets toward the coastline.

“That’s the part we can control,” Sellin said. “The problem is that there is so much money to be made from fertilizers. The big box stores are even now selling applications for winter treatment of lawns.”

There was a heavy rainstorm in early October, but Sellin said the recent bloom appeared before that, making it seem as though the algae outbreak may be related to increased fertilizer use on lawns and not merely a sudden flushing of nitrogen built up over time.

In 2007, the Friends of Casco Bay helped persuade the state Legislature to pass a law requiring that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection establish a limit on how much nitrogen can be discharged from wastewater treatment plants. However, the DEP has yet to set a number to that directive.

With that in mind, Sellin said it’s up to local landowners to take charge of beach health.

“What you do on you lawn, anywhere in the watershed area, can impact the things that live in the bay,” said Doan. “There are things you can do as a homeowner to keep your lawn fertilizers and toxic pesticides from getting into the water.”

Using grass clippings as mulch rather than applying fertilizer is a good way to start, Sellin said. Others less tied to keeping a traditional lawn can do, as he and West have, and replace the grass with clover, which does a better job of capturing and controlling the runoff of nitrogen and other pollutants.

“The pesticides and these heavy fertilizers that are so profitable for the big boxes really aren’t necessary. You can get a green lawn just by following any organic lawn care guide, found anywhere online,” Selling said.

“Hopefully, we’ve got past the idea of treating the ocean like a toilet,” said Doan.

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