The city of South Portland lauds its successes of governance – Electrify Everything, One Climate Future, the pesticide ban – but dismisses its failure to protect children, swimmers and visitors from contamination at Willard Beach.

Willard Beach was closed to the public for about a week in early June after a sewer pipe issue nearby. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer, file

Department heads and council members ignored high levels of fecal bacteria contamination at Willard Beach until neighbors emailed and met with city officials this summer. Willard Beach has the highest levels, and second highest days of contamination, of more than 60 beaches monitored by the Maine Healthy Beaches initiative. Even higher levels of fecal bacteria are found in the stormwater runoff that empties through a 36-inch drainpipe onto the beach and into Casco Bay.

Small children crawl in the pipe, sitting and playing in the runoff. So far, there are no warning signs up for parents. Children should not be allowed to play directly in the runoff. City officials seem reluctant to acknowledge that the goal of water testing is to notify, inform and ultimately protect the public.

Frequent rains exacerbate the contamination but are not a source. Fifty-year-old sewer and stormwater pipes run under Willard Beach. Years of neglect and failure to take advantage of the billions of federal dollars in grants available in 2021 for sewer and stormwater replacement in coastal towns and cities are some reasons why the contamination continues unabated. Sewer pipe blowouts occur at a considerable cost to the city and result in beach closures.

No city department has planned or implemented a filtration system or systems to mitigate, treat or eliminate contaminates before stormwater outfall is discharged onto the beach and into the bay. Biofiltration and in-line treatment systems, rain gardens, gravel wetlands and tree trenches would all be low-cost starters. An underground detention and retention system is feasible for the city owned non-buildable lot on Willard Street. Additionally, developers in the Willard Beach Watershed can be required to make private roadways and driveways permeable.

The Willard Beach master plan, adopted by the City Council on June 6, emphasizes dog waste management – both on the beach and in adjacent neighborhoods – as a critical component in the effort to improve water quality.

There is a correlation between consistently contaminated Maine beaches and off-leash dogs. Many of us dog lovers wish otherwise; however, given the explosion of “fur babies” during the COVID-19 years and the fact that Willard Beach is more or less advertised nationwide as a “dog beach,” fecal contamination by dogs should not be surprising. What is surprising is our city’s response.

South Portland’s stormwater coordinator is responsible for stormwater quality testing. Beginning on at the end of May, he and his intern tested the stormwater outfall. The test results were alarming. Of the 21 days tested between May 31 and Aug. 14, 13 days had high levels of contamination; in other words, 62% of the days tested showed contamination.

These test results are made public, but they are difficult to locate on any city websites. Probably both humans and dogs are responsible for the ongoing contamination; regardless, it is time for South Portland to take whatever actions and messaging necessary to make Willard Beach safe and healthy, both in the short and the long term.

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