Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, center, stands next to U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1s District, and Howard Carter, director of Saco’s Water Resource Recovery Department, during a tour of Saco’s wastewater treatment facility Monday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The nation’s top environmental official visited the Saco Water Resource Recovery Facility on Monday, one of six wastewater treatment plants in Maine that are at risk of being overrun by sea level rise within the next 30 years.

Administrator Michael Regan of the Environmental Protection Agency urged at-risk plants like the one in Saco, which needs $54 million in improvements to stay above water, to apply for some of the $50 billion in federal water project funds included in the infrastructure bill last year.

“We are making the single largest investment in U.S. water infrastructure in history,” Regan said. “We have a once in a generation opportunity to build a better America, to invest in systems that can handle the threats of the climate process while safeguarding our local waters.”

Of Maine’s six at-risk plants, the half-century-old Saco River plant is considered by scientists to be the most vulnerable because it sits closest to sea level, just two feet away from a river with huge tidal swings, said plant manager Howard Carter.

“We’ll be completely inundated by the end of the century, but we’ll have to deal with storm surge flooding long before that,” Carter said. “Think about what raw sewage discharges would do to our fishermen, our clammers, our beaches. A lot of people make their living from our waters.”

The Saco plant, sandwiched between a yacht club and a riverwalk, treats about 4 million gallons of wastewater from 12,000 residents and 375 businesses every day. It has had several “close calls,” such as a December 2019 storm when the facility was flooded but not quite overrun, Howard said.


The cost of replacing the six at-risk plants – including Kennebunk, Machias, Ogunquit, South Berwick and Wiscasset – when the Gulf of Maine rises an estimated 1.6 feet by 2050 would run between $31 and $93 million, according to the state’s climate action plan.

Replacing a damaged Saco plant would cost between $15 and $44 million, according to estimates. With that in mind, city voters last fall approved a $50 million bond to build a new elevated plant on the same lot. It will be the city’s biggest public works project ever.

Saco will be looking to the federal government for help with the bill, Carter said.

And U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, is determined to make sure that happens. Pingree, chair of the congressional subcommittee that oversees Regan’s budget, said a city the size of Saco, with just 20,000 residents, should not have to bear that financial burden alone.

Maine will receive $68 million for water projects in the first-year disbursement of EPA money, Pingree said. But that is just a down payment on what Pingree and Regan promised would be Maine’s eventual cut of the infrastructure plan.

Under the “Maine Can’t Wait” plan, the state committed to manage for a sea level rise of 1.5 feet by 2050 and 3.9 feet by 2100. Maine will consider preparing for an 8.8 foot sea level rise by the end of the century for its most vulnerable infrastructure.

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