A recent opinion piece (“Maine Voices: South Portland’s neglect of Willard Beach fails locals and visitors alike,” Aug. 26) pointed out important truths about water quality at Willard Beach. However, the author did not put Willard’s current water quality problems into critical context.

Willard Beach is such a special place in our community, and the city of South Portland takes its stewardship role very seriously. We share the water quality concerns expressed by a number of residents. The city participates in the Maine Healthy Beaches program to ensure that the water at Willard Beach is safe for swimming and to notify visitors via sign and flag systems when it is not. 

The exceptionally wet weather and associated water quality advisories this summer have resulted in more bacteria in the water at Willard (and many other Maine beaches) than usual. Consequently, residents have advocated for greater city action, which we welcome; it only strengthens our community. The city diligently follows the Maine Healthy Beaches protocols for testing the swimming water and posting advisories. We do not ignore bacterial contamination. 

When it rains, runoff flows into the stormwater system and eventually out to sea. Bacteria exceedances at Willard Beach have been more frequent and occasionally higher than others participating in the Maine Healthy Beaches program. The Willard Beach watershed is densely developed, consisting of 40% impervious surfaces (i.e., pavement and buildings). Consequently, there is less natural landscape to absorb potential pollutants. During significant rain events, pollutants such as animal waste, lawn chemicals and many others are discharged to the beach water via the stormwater system. The Upper Merrimack Watershed Association uses the phrase: “When it rains, it’s poor.” It’s an easy way to remember the relationship between wet weather and water quality. 

Because poor water quality is more common in urban settings, the city has completed numerous assessments in the Willard Beach watershed. In addition to the Maine Healthy Beaches testing, the Water Resource Protection department monitors bacteria levels at the beach’s main outfall and other areas in the watershed to locate and mitigate potential contamination sources.

That department is also investigating whether wastewater may be penetrating the stormwater system, which can occur with aging infrastructure. Last year it invested $217,000 to line multiple sections of older sewer pipe and is currently developing designs to replace the sewer force main that runs along Willard Beach. Water Resource Protection also regularly seeks regional, state and federal grants to help cover project costs. Over the past decade, nearly $650,000 has been invested in numerous watershed restoration projects throughout the city. Earlier this year, we were invited to submit a $280,000 grant proposal to enhance aquatic habitat in the Trout Brook watershed. 

The South Portland City Council appointed the Willard Beach Master Plan Committee in 2019 to develop comprehensive recommendations for preserving and improving the beach. The recommendations address water quality, infrastructure and more. The plan was presented to and adopted by the council in June, and the city is already putting it into action. The Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department recently issued a request for proposals to update signage at the beach, including the installation of permanent signs to keep visitors informed during their beach trips. 

When arriving at Willard, we encourage visitors to look for the water quality flag at the main entrance. If the flag is yellow or orange, contact with the water is not advised. If it’s green, it’s safe for swimming. Please avoid swimming or playing near the stormwater outfall, since it sometimes contains elevated bacteria levels. (New on-beach signage indicating as much is on the way.) More information about Willard Beach’s water quality, including a link to Maine Healthy Beaches’ daily beach status, can be found at: southportland.org/departments/water-resource-protection.

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