A stormwater outfall pipe at Willard Beach in South Portland. While only stormwater is expelled into the water, it can sometimes be contaminated by leaking sewer pipes in the area. Contributed / City of South Portland

Willard Beach will soon be added to the state Department of Environmental Protection’s list of impaired waters because of the persistent bacterial contamination in the water last summer.

The designation does not mean the beach is unsafe for the public, city officials said at a City Council workshop last week, but recognizes the consistency of the issue and makes the city eligible for grants to fix it from the DEP.

Fred Dillon, the city’s stormwater program coordinator, updated the City Council at the June 13 workshop on recent studies and work completed to thwart bacteria contamination at Willard Beach and previewed the work ahead.

A study of water quality from June 2023 to October 2023 found that bacteria levels rose above the DEP Maine Healthy Beaches Program’s threshold 15 times.

South Portland received 7.7 inches more than the average amount of rainfall last summer, Dillon said, and the instances of rising bacteria levels often aligned with rainy days.

“The kinds of bacteria exceedances we were seeing last year weren’t unique to Willard Beach,” he noted. “They were all across the state as well.”


Meagan Sims, water quality standards coordinator at the DEP, said the Healthy Beaches Program works with 65 beaches across Maine.

“There are other beaches that have problematic water quality, particularly those at river mouths, and we also have other beaches that are part of the impaired list of waters, which Willard Beach is being added to,” she said. “Willard Beach isn’t alone in this.”

While only stormwater is expelled into the water at Willard Beach, it can sometimes be contaminated when damaged pipes in the sewer system leak into the stormwater system.

Dillon said the area of Coolidge and Angell avenues is “where we’re getting the biggest bacteria concentrations in the watershed,” and that’s likely because the stormwater and sewage lines there run “almost right on top of each other.”

However, he and other officials hypothesize that sewage lines on private properties in the area are also culprits.

“If they’re equally aging and deteriorating, similar to what we think is happening in the street, they’re likely leaking as well,” Dillon said.


Pipes on private properties could be clogged, cracked, have open joints, or have been punctured by the roots of trees without the homeowner knowing, he said.

“This happens all the time in sewer services,” Dillon said, “but it isn’t until there’s a problem and there’s a blockage and people can’t flush the toilet that they hire a plumber or contractor to come in and replace the pipe.”

In 2022, the city lined the inside of over 700 feet of sewer pipes near Fern Lane and 1,000 feet along the beach, Dillon said. In 2023, they replaced the force main on the beach. Lining for stormwater pipes is in store for this summer, covered by a grant from the DEP, he said.

Councilor Natalie West and some audience members at the workshop asked if some of the water contamination at Willard Beach, a popular dog-walking spot, could be due to dogs. Dillon said it’s possible, but studies have been only on human bacteria, not dogs’. When residents asked why, saying that dog waste could play a role, Dillon said there would have to be a formal request and funding from the city to check on that.

“There’s no reason that we couldn’t sample, aside from cost,” Dillon said. “It’s just as easy to pull the dog sample as a human sample.”

Resident Jeff Steinbrink was concerned about the turnaround on water quality testing, and the reliability of the flag system used to inform beachgoers about the water quality.


“If the water samples are two days old or three days old … the flags don’t reflect the actual quality of the water that people are going to get into or not,” he said. “It seems to me, in the 21st century, we ought to be able to do something so that testing is more timely.”

Sims said their testing takes 24 to 36 hours and rapid water quality testing isn’t available at the Maine DEP.

“It can be done more rapidly, but it requires a lot of expensive equipment and specific expertise that we don’t have here in our programs,” she said. “We as a program are working with members of the research community to try to bring that to Maine, but it’s going to take a while.”

She said her department is encouraging communities to post “precautionary rainfall advisories” due to the correlation between heavy rains and heightened bacteria levels.

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