Bill Mann, South Portland’s economic development director, takes a measurement of the water’s depth at low tide near the city’s shoreline. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

It’s a chilly December morning as South Portland’s economic development director sets off from South Port Marine at 7:30, just before the peak of low tide in Portland Harbor.

William Mann asks the boat captain to get as close to the South Portland shoreline as possible without bottoming out. He takes a long white pole, each foot of it marked with a black line and number, and sticks it into the water to get a depth measurement.

The ideal depth in this area at low tide would be around 8 feet, he says. On this day, Dec. 8, it measures at 2½ and roughly 6 inches of that is mud.

A boat at South Port Marine is caught in the mud and silt that has built up at the marina’s docks. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

This part of the harbor Mann tours used to be dotted with a dozen boat slips that fell victim to the shallowness of low tide. In another part of the marina, one boat is completely out of the water, giving the appearance it was driven aground.

The harbor needs dredging to rid it of the years of mud, silt and waste that have built up on the bottom, Mann says. The buildup has a negative economic impact not only the city’s six marinas and recreational boaters, but on fishermen, lobstermen and large shipping vessels as well as local businesses on shore, he said.


The cities of Portland and South Portland, the Portland Harbor Commission and the Maine Department of Transportation have banded together to plan a $31 million dredging project, but their request for a federal grant to fund 80% of the project was denied last month.

Centuries of bad habits and storm runoff have led to the buildup.

“The way we do things in 2021 is not the way we did things a few years ago – certainly not the way we did them a half century ago or even a century ago,” Mann said. “At points in our history, we dumped things over the side of a vessel or things went into the harbor that today we think,  ‘Wow, I can’t believe we did that.’”

Think of the harbor like a car, he said.

“You need to change the oil, you need to put new tires on periodically. The same is true for our docks and piers. You need to dredge around those because, overtime, runoff from the land will build up sediment.”

That sediment has “partially or fully impaired between 25% and 40% of the berthing space in the harbor,” Mann said.


More than 50% of the sediment to be removed is on the South Portland side.

The project has been years in the making, with stakeholders garnering support, gaining permits, conducting tests and applying for grants. But they’ve come up short twice on the latter, most recently in November when the U.S Department of Transportation turned down their request for a $24 million Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity, or RAISE, grant to get the project going.

Some of South Port Marine’s berthing space is unusable at low tide due to the build up of sediments. Drew Johnson / The Forecaster

“We’re disappointed, to say the least,” said Dan Haley, chairperson of the Portland Harbor Commission. “It could simply be competition; there’s a lot of projects, a lot of needs, across the nation, and we didn’t make the cut on this one.”

The two cities and state transportation department have pledged $6.4 million toward the project. In July, the state offered an additional $10 million if the second attempt for the federal grant failed, which it did.

The project did receive a $350,000 EPA grant to conduct testing on the sediments and create the permitting process, Haley said.

Being twice denied project funding frustrates South Port Marine owner Kip Reynolds.


“You come up against a stone wall everywhere you turn,” Reynolds said. “If this was a government thing, it would have happened 10 years ago.”

He stressed that dredging is vital for local industries, pier owners and other marinas, not just him.

“This is something that has a much larger scope,” he said.

Many of the affected areas haven’t been dredged in 70 years, if ever, Mann said.

Reynolds dredged his marina in the 1990s but can’t do that again because of the expense, especially the cost of required testing of the sediments before they can be dredged and disposed of.

“You have to weigh out the cost to do the biological testing,” he said. “That cost alone, for a single facility, you’re probably talking $200,000 just to do that.”


Workers take samples of the sediments in Portland Harbor. Contributed / Michael Johnson, Stantec

That’s on top of permits and the actual dredging process.

“That’s why a lot of marinas and piers have not done it,” said Mike Soucy, director of operations at Port Harbor Marine in South Portland. “At some point people are going to be in the situation where they can’t hold off anymore.”

Undertaking the project under one permit, instead of stakeholders dredging separately, is more feasible.

The project has an estimated $50 million economic impact, according to the Portland Harbor Commission, and they believe that is conservative. Part of the impact is the creation of jobs, particularly in fishing and seafood processing, which are now hampered by the harbor’s condition, Mann said.

“Let’s say you’ve got a fishing boat that’s coming, and unfortunately you’re coming in at low tide,” he explained. “You want to unload but you can’t. You have to wait for two or three other boats. There is available space, theoretically, but the reality is you can’t get into it because it’s silted up.”

Dredging would also allow South Portland to take advantage of aquaculture opportunities.


“Aquaculture is a really important industry for the world going forward,” said Peter Stocks, a South Portland representative on the harbor commission. “Probably, between Scarborough and Cumberland, there are at least a dozen to 15 aquaculture farms. One of the things that the industry needs is a place that it can bring its stuff.”

Tourism revenue would get a boost, too,  Mann said.

“We’re a natural draw for local tourism and for folks visiting the state of Maine,” he said, and with dwindling berthing spaces and boat slips, fewer tourists are able to dock their boats and come ashore to become customers of local shops and restaurants. South Portland has a total of about 1,000 slips.

The U.S. Department of Transportation next month will debrief the Portland Harbor Commission on why it’s funding request was unsuccessful.  The commission hopes that process, which they went through during their past unsuccessful applications, will help improve the application they plan to file again next year.

“We need to demonstrate that there’s support for this project. That’s going to be our primary focus moving forward,” said Bill Needleman, Portland’s waterfront coordinator.

There also seems to be no one who opposes the project, with the RAISE grant being the project’s final hurdle before it can get underway.


The EPA has deemed the planned method to store the dredged material under the harbor floor in a Confined Aquatic Disposal, or CAD, cell as environmentally sound. The 9-acre site will be between the Casco Bay Bridge and the U.S. Coast Guard Station. Engineering consultant Stantec has approved that location, according Michael Johnson, the firm’s project manager.

Meanwhile, some of the sediment on the harbor floor contains contaminants from runoff that is harmful to the ecosystem, Mann said.

Johnson estimated that constructing the CAD cell could be done in one year and the dredging could take another three to five.

Eelgrass, which is “the base of the food chain in this part of the world” and also reduces the effects of coastal erosion, will be protected in this process, Stocks said. The impact on lobsters will be mitigated as it will be done between November and March when lobsters migrate further offshore.

“We’ve worked on a lot of big projects as a consulting firm, and this one stands out to me as just a win-win,” Johnson said. “Talk about having everyone on board; from the environmental folks, the fishermen, the pier and wharf owners.”

He stated that “it’s very rare that you have a project that has no opposition” to not be able to get off the ground.

“Portland Harbor has centuries of history behind it, and we want it to have centuries of future ahead of it,” Needleman said. “The harbor provides a safe place for vessels to interact with the land. The more water depth we lose … the less utility we have.”

“It’s an existential problem for Portland Harbor.”

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