The news was positive at the Friends of Casco Bay Volunteer Appreciation Party and annual meeting, held Jan. 27 at Cole Haan’s headquarters in Yarmouth.

Friends of Casco Bay is a nonprofit watchdog group that relies on citizen volunteers and professional scientists to monitor the health of this treasured community resource and tackle problems before they seriously degrade water quality.

The party began with a cocktail hour featuring sandwiches and appetizers and later moved into the auditorium for an organizational update and the presentation of two awards.

“We’re doing pretty good,” Baykeeper Joe Payne told me as guests enjoyed Allagash beer and locally made wines. “We’re doing great in some places.”

He showed me a map with multicolored pins indicating specific water quality trends in various parts of the bay.

“The red ones (are places) we’re really working on,” Payne said.

Nitrogen pollution is the bay’s biggest challenge, Payne said, and he noted that the three sources of this contaminant include fertilizer runoff, raw sewage discharges and deposits from the air.

Portland Harbor and Back Cove remain particular problem areas.

In addition to relying on water samples collected by volunteers around the bay, Payne regularly traverses the area in the boat Donovan’s Delight taking additional readings. The boat is 30 years old, and the organization is in the process of raising $485,000 to replace it and create a boat maintenance fund.

“The water quality trip is 75 miles around the bay,” Payne said. “It goes from Phippsburg down the Foreside to Cape Elizabeth. It varies, but it usually takes around six hours.”

During the meeting that followed the cocktail reception, board member Peter Dufour presented the organization’s financial report.

“Despite the Great Recession, Friends of Casco Bay had its strongest operating year in the history of the organization,” Dufour told the crowd. He added that the organization was ending its fiscal year with a surplus of more than $41,000.

Dufour pointed out that Cathy Ramsdell, the organization’s executive director, is a certified public accountant, which may explain how it has managed to be so fiscally conservative in these tough economic times.

Next the awards were handed out. The first went to Darren McLellan of Cape Elizabeth, who was honored with the Volunteer Appreciation Award for his work as a water quality tester for the past 15 years. Most recently, he’s been sampling at Peabbles Cove in Cape Elizabeth, where his family has lived for generations.

“The first test in March and the last test in October, it’s kind of hard to convince yourself to get down in the water,” McLellan told me prior to the awards ceremony. “But in general, it’s not at all hard.”

The second award, called the Casco Bay Award, went to the whole Bennett family, which owns Oakhurst Dairy in Portland. A green business leader, Oakhurst generates power from solar panels on its roof and drives trucks that are either hybrids or run on biodiesel.

Bennett family members honored with the award include Althea Bennett McGirr, Mary Ellen Bennett Tetreau, Jean Bennett Driscoll, Bill Bennett and John Bennett, who were all at the party, and board member Stanley Bennett II and Priscilla Bennett Doucette, who were unable to attend the festivities.

“Friends of Casco Bay is a great organization with a wonderful mission,” board member Kathryn Reid told me. “When my board terms ends, I’m looking into becoming a water quality monitor.”

Volunteers and board members weren’t the only ones to laud the organization. Businessmen Tollef Olson and Paul Dobbins also offered praise. The pair owns the Ocean Approved kelp noodle company in Portland and grows much of the kelp in Casco Bay. They provided Calendar Island kelp beds with Maine shrimp, kelp coleslaw and dilly kelp pickles for the party spread.

“It is where we live, it is what we do,” Olson said to explain why they support Friends of Casco Bay. “Clean water is everything to us.”

After telling me that the organization relies on more than 200 volunteers (including 78 water quality testers) to accomplish its work, Ramsdell said, “This is really a thank-you night for our volunteers. We couldn’t do what we do for Casco Bay without all the volunteers.” 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

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