Annual cleanup illustrates Saco River’s fragile balance

SACO AND BIDDEFORD (June 1, 2009):

Robert Boilard said he feels the river, “which has taken a lot of beatings from the years back,” remains threatened and should be a top priority for state and local leaders.  Any attempts by bottled water companies such as Poland Spring to draw more resources from the aquifer should be viewed with skepticism, he asserted, because tens of thousands of people already derive their drinking water supply from the Saco River aquifer.

“That water’s more important than oil,” said Boilard.

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Robert Boilard’s association with the Saco River goes back more than eight decades and includes the time he fell into the current as a boy and the Great Flood of 1936.

Boilard, 84, of Biddeford, even had the bridge over the river at Pine Street in Saco named after him in 2007 in honor of his lifetime efforts to protect and preserve the waterway.

“That bridge saved my life, because I lived on Pine Street in Saco, and a guy on his way to work saw me tumble out of a skiff there on the river bank,” said Boilard.

Decades ago, Boilard helped lead a movement of concerned residents to secure legal protection for the Saco River. This culminated in the creation in 1973 of the Saco River Corridor Commission, which still serves as a multi-town agency to coordinate planning, water quality testing and oversight for the 134-mile-long river.

In the past 10 years, the river-related efforts of local residents and professionals have grown to include research at the University of New England in Biddeford and the annual Canoe-a-thon cleanups organized by the Ferry Beach Ecology School in Saco.

Water quality monitoring conducted at UNE and by the Corridor Commission shows the Saco River has been having some problems with contamination by bacteria and pharmaceuticals near the cities of Saco and Biddeford, although its pollution levels are no worse than in many comparably sized rivers.

Boating on the river in the twin cities is certainly considered safe. On Saturday, the 2009 Canoe-a-thon will take place on from 8:30-noon, beginning at the Front Street public boat launch in Saco. Participants bring their own boats, and the cleanup will launch at 9 a.m after registration and safety checks.

“The idea is to get people out on the river to basically clean up the banks,” said Drew Dumsch, executive director of the school.

About 50 people helped with the cleanup last year, said Dumsch. The boaters move down the river to Camp Ellis, where a barbecue lunch is held afterward.

“It’s fun,” he said. “You’re going down the river with the tide.”

A city dump truck will stay near the group. Last year, it was filled with trash pulled from the banks of the river, Dumsch recalled, including a small refrigerator.

“To see that come in balanced on the gunwales of the canoe was impressive,” he said.

Dr. Philip Yund, a biology professor and director of the Marine Science Center at UNE, said the university is just a few years into “a fairly large institutional commitment” to study the river and its impact on Saco Bay. It will likely be at least another decade, Yund said, before researchers really understand the dynamics of the river and the bay.

As part of the Saco River Coastal Observing System, or SaRCOS, sensors at two sites measure the physics of how fresh water flows and mixes with the salt water in the bay. The river water tends to float on the surface, where it empties into Saco Bay near Camp Ellis in Saco, said Yund.

“The plumes (of river water draining into the bay) can be huge,” he said. “It can extend a good four or five miles out during spring snow melt, and it can cover 12 square miles.”

The river does contribute enough nutrients into the bay to foster the growth of phytoplankton, noted Yund, but researchers have not yet tested to see if a toxic algae called Alexandrium is being fed by the river water.

In terms of pollution, the Saco River doesn’t seem to have as much chemical contamination associated with industry as some other rivers in Maine do, such as the Androscoggin, the professor said. However, UNE scientists are recording fairly high levels of E-coli bacteria from the river, and those bacteria display resistance to antibiotic drugs.

“The E-coli counts can be incredibly high, especially following a rainfall event,” reported Yund. “There are days when my intake water does not meet my discharge requirements.”

Seals at the marine center show slight resistance to antibiotics when they come in, but after living in the river water, said Yund, “They’re resistant to about six or seven antibiotics, and they’re not the ones we’re using in house.”

The likely causes include combined sewer overflows in Saco and Biddeford, he added, or livestock kept on farms within the watershed. It’s not possible to pinpoint one or the other, noted Yund, but both sources would involve pharmaceutical drugs taken by either humans or livestock.

Other pathogens sometimes found in the area where the river drains into the bay include the canine distemper virus, cryptosporidium and giardia, said Yund, but those could be coming from either body of water.

Boilard said he feels the river, “which has taken a lot of beatings from the years back,” remains threatened and should be a top priority for state and local leaders.

Any attempts by bottled water companies such as Poland Spring to draw more resources from the aquifer should be viewed with skepticism, he asserted, because tens of thousands of people already derive their drinking water supply from the Saco River aquifer.

“That water’s more important than oil,” said Boilard.

With several hydroelectric generators, the Maine Energy Recovery Co. incinerator and a Poland Spring bottling plant using the river, human impacts are unmistakable. Farther north, between Baldwin and Fryeburg and closer to its mountain origins in New Hampshire, the river is used extensively for recreation.

Although dedicated volunteers stock the river with salmon each year, fishing is not what it used to be on the Saco, according to Boilard, a longtime angler.

“They know that game is going to end soon, and I was the first one that warned them,” he said.

Because of these complexities and the river’s value to many communities, it’s important for people to work together “using the same rulebook,” said Peg Mills, a Saco city councilor who also represents the city on the Corridor Commission.

“People do still swim in it,” said Mills.

The development of Prentiss Park off Louden Road will provide more public access to the riverfront, she said.

Caryl Everett, who used to represent Biddeford on the Corridor Commission, said she still helps the agency with water sampling near her home in the South Street neighborhood of Biddeford. While testers find occasional “hot spots” with higher pollution readings, said Everett, mostly she’s seen evidence of good water quality.

“I’ve gotten pretty consistently good results,” she said.

Water quality data compiled by the Corridor Commission show that E-coli contamination in samples gathered in recent years off Front Street in Saco has been notably higher than in samples taken upriver off Union Falls Road in Dayton. E-coli levels were more than twice as high each year from 2004 to 2008 at the Front Street site, and they reached 322 colonies per 100 milliliters during the summer of 2007. Last summer, they reached 200 colonies per milliliter.

The Canoe-a-thon is perhaps the most visible component of the community’s concern for the river, and it also helps draw attention to Ferry Beach Ecology School. In its 10 years of operation, the ecology school has served about 68,000 students, who come for overnight residential programs from all around the region.

“We have eight ecosystems within walking distance of our campus,” said Maggie Daigle, the school’s community relations director.

Dumsch said the school uses “narrative education,” including skits, humor and costumes, to teach environmental science. The cleanup is a great way to introduce people to the school and to the landscape surrounding them, he said – something that gets ignored all too easily.

“We don’t get outside enough,” said Dumsch.

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Based in Westbrook, Reporter Jonathan Hunt can be reached at 207-854-2577 or by e-mail at jhunt@keepmecurrent.com.