SOUTH PORTLAND — In a wooded gully behind Dick’s Sporting Goods, within earshot of traffic on Maine Mall Road, a heavy-equipment crew is working to transform a half-mile section of Long Creek from the commercial drainage ditch it has become in the last 50 years into a cool-running stream that might sustain brook trout once again.

The urban stream restoration project is the first of its kind in Maine, moving dirt, rock and root balls of hemlock trees to sculpt a meandering creek bed where now only pollution-tolerant fish and mud bugs flourish. The project also aims to halt erosion and restore the creek’s flood plain, so it will once again absorb rainfall that now rushes from acres of parking lots near the Maine Mall and blasts down the main stem of Long Creek.

It’s the next-to-last project in a 10-year effort to fix the damage done to the 3.5-square-mile Long Creek watershed since the mall area emerged in the late 1960s. And the work is continuing despite the Trump administration’s recent repeal ofa 2015 federal water protection rule, rolling regulations back to 1986 levels.

But while state and local officials intend to upgrade a section of the creek that’s become a resting place for rusted shopping carts, it will never look the way it did before the Maine Turnpike was built and the outskirts of South Portland, Scarborough, Westbrook and Portland became ripe for development.

“We have to work with what we’ve got here,” said John Field, a Portland-based stream-restoration specialist who’s directing the project. “We’re not restoring the creek back to the way it was 100 years ago.”

John Field, an expert on fluvial geomorphology, was contracted to work on the Long Creek Restoration Project. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Long Creek is an urban stream system with four primary branches that flow through the commercial-retail district and converge in South Portland before heading from Clark’s Pond into the Fore River, Portland Harbor and Casco Bay.

The system is overseen by the Long Creek Watershed Management District in cooperation with the four municipalities and under regulations of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

It’s rated a Class C stream under the Maine Water Classification Program, but it currently doesn’t meet the water quality standards necessary for that classification, which must “support all species of fish indigenous to the receiving waters and maintain the structure and function of the resident biological community.”

Repeated studies have found that “years of urbanization have significantly impaired the stream’s health, as well as its ability to support recreation and wildlife, such as brook trout,” according to the district’s website.

Through the decades, Long Creek has been damaged by erosion from lack of stormwater control, increased water temperature from lack of shade in certain areas and reduced dissolved oxygen. Pollution from uncontrolled runoff includes metals, chloride, phosphorus, nitrogen and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which result from burning petroleum, wood and other materials.

“It’s what they call an urban-impaired stream,” said Peter Carney, executive director of the watershed district. “Ultimately, the consequences or cumulative impacts of the pollution range down to Casco Bay.”

In September, the Trump administration revoked a 2015 rule that gave the EPA broader authority to protect wetlands and tributaries that feed the nation’s rivers, estuaries and ocean habitats. While 22 states were operating under the Obama-era rule, including Maine, court rulings had blocked the regulation change in 28 states. Farmers, energy prospectors and others said it hampered economic development and infringed on property rights.

The rollback won’t hinder work that’s underway in the Long Creek watershed, Carney said. The district was established in 2009, before the controversial rule, when the EPA imposed a provision in the Clean Water Act that requires property owners in the watershed with 1 or more acres of impervious ground cover, including buildings, paved parking areas and sidewalks, to control stormwater discharges and get a pollution discharge elimination permit from the DEP.

The precedent-setting action led 89 property owners in the mall area to sign onto the district’s general permit, while 46 other properties got individual permits. Each property owner pays a $3,000 annual fee to support the district’s watershed management efforts.

“It’s not just government agencies that got together. The landowners did, too,” said Fred Dillon, South Portland’s stormwater program coordinator.

Peter Carney, left, executive director of Long Creek Watershed Management District and Frederick Dillon, South Portland’s stormwater program coordinator, at a finished section of Long Creek near the Maine Mall. (Derek Davis/Staff Photographer)

The district has spent $15 million in the last nine years on stormwater management projects, Carney said. The latest project, focusing on a section of the creek that runs from Foden Road to Maine Mall Road, will cost $850,000 and is scheduled to be completed by the end of October.

The stream restoration project is a jaw-dropping feat of watershed engineering. Heavy-equipment operators are placing stones in washed out areas, removing a misplaced earthen berm that caused additional erosion and building in-stream structures that will slow the creek and hopefully invite desired critters to return.

A front-end bucket excavator drags, hoists and drives 20- to 30-foot-long hemlock trees into the soft creek bed like giant toothpicks, leaving the tangled root balls exposed at the surface.

The crew augments the root balls with hemlock branches and other tree debris, creating rot-resistant “rootwads” that slow water flow and promote pooling and riffling. They also mix oxygen into the creek, retain organic matter and nutrients, and provide habitat favorable for cool-water fish and insects, such as caddisflies and mayflies.

The district’s last planned project will be construction of a second gravel “wetland” on Philbrook Avenue, near Romano’s Macaroni Grill. Similar to natural wetlands, the engineered structures absorb and filter runoff from mall area parking lots.

What the district does next to improve and protect Long Creek will depend on future water quality analyses and recommendations from the DEP.

“We’d like to see brook trout in there some day,” Carney said. “We hope they come back naturally.”


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