If you’re planning a day at a coastal beach in Maine, don’t worry too much about whether the water will be clean and safe for swimming.

However, state and national environmental advocates say, know what you’re getting into.

And good luck with that.

It might be harder than you’d expect to get reliable information.

Officials from Environment Maine, along with concerned residents, business owners and a representative of the National Defense Resources Council, gathered at Portland’s East End Beach on Tuesday to decry what they regard as the “political spin” of last week’s statements from the Department of Environmental Protection that water quality is the best it has been since 2008 at 61 monitored public beaches covering more than 30 miles along the coast.

“I was astonished to hear the false and misleading statements” about water quality at the state’s public beaches, said Emily Figdor, director of Environment Maine, a statewide grass-roots environmental education and advocacy organization with 14,000 members. The state’s claim that beachgoers will find the coastal beaches clean and safe for swimming is a misrepresentation of testing results, she said.

“That’s just not the case. Water quality is not as good” as it is claimed to be, Figdor said.

“Here in Maine we are very blessed” with the extensive portions of coastline protected for public use, she said, but added that Maine’s water quality has “remained relatively unchanged” over the last several years, from 8 percent of samples exceeding national recommended public health standards for bacterial content in 2001 to 9 percent in 2010. The national average stood at 8 percent.

“I’m not sure how you can say anything other than that the water quality is improving, said Samantha DePoy-Warren, director of communications for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which issued a report last week with data indicating that the state’s coastal beach water quality is the best it has been since 2008.

DEP testing, in part compiled with the Maine Healthy Beaches Program, shows that more than 98 percent of beach days in 2011 found coastal waters safe for swimming. The number of posted advisory days — when the public is warned of conditions that may lead them to avoid the water — is down substantially, from 207 in 2010 to 112 last year.

To suggest otherwise or to insinuate the DEP “is not doing enough” to protect beaches and water quality, DePoy-Warren said, “is offensive.”

Yet according to statistics from the National Resources Defense Council in Washington, which as a part of its mission tracks pollution nationwide, Maine ranks 20th of 30 coastal states of those monitored for beach water contamination.

Polluted beach water has been blamed for a variety of illnesses and maladies, including stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis and hepatitis. Children are believed to face higher risk because while swimming, they often gulp water.

The number of “beaches not meeting the national standard is not going down,” said Melissa Waage, campaign director for the NRDC. Clean beaches are “critically important” for human health as well as to bolster the state’s tourism and related economies, estimated at more than $44 billion a year, of which at least $7 billion is attributed to beach uses.

“The beaches need more help … and much more aggressive action,” Waage said, to ensure that they are cleaned up and remain healthful for residents and visitors alike. “There are many days that our beaches are fine,” but more can be done individually and collectively, at every level of government, to improve their water quality, she said.

One success story in the otherwise sobering report came from East End Beach in Portland, where environmentalists gathered to make their case for more comprehensive, regular water testing and clearer, more credible reporting of results. Once closed to swimmers, the bay’s water has been cleared sufficiently to allow swimming at the beach.

Other beaches with good marks for cleanliness include Popham Beach in Phippsburg and Pine Point Beach in Scarborough.

Those showing a significant percentage of failed water-quality tests include Laite Beach in Camden (41 percent), Wells Harbor in Wells (28 percent), and Riverside in Ogunquit and Goodies in Rockport (each 26 percent).

Some sunbathers on East End Beach by noon yesterday remain unconvinced that the water is safe for swimming. Tina Gorham, of Portland, who visits two or three times a week, still doesn’t go into the water there, she said, “because I get nervous about it from the past.”

Donna Brown, also of Portland, had a different take on the problems of pollution. “They need to clean the (beach) part,” she said, pointing to the thick line of wrack and trash along the shoreline. Dogs are an issue, too, she said, because some owners do not clean up after their pets.

For any cleanup effort to be effective, she said, “you have to police it, almost,” she said.

In Maine, Figdor said, beachgoers are not warned every time water test samples exceed national recommended health standards, which establish a limit of 104 enterococcus (a type of streptococcus) bacteria per 100 milliliters of water — generally, a sign of human or animal waste and often carried by runoff from heavy rain. Instead, it is up to local beach managers to decide how often to test and whether to issue an advisory about water quality.

Completely closing a beach is uncommon and generally reflects a protracted, serious problem with pollution. No Maine beaches were closed last year.

“Parents cannot be expected to be biologists,” Figdor said, emphasizing the need for reliable and accessible information that lay people can understand.

DEP’s DePoy-Warren countered the criticism by pointing out that anyone who wants to know what the conditions are — or have been — at a particular Maine beach can get the information online at mainehealthybeaches.com.

The environmental advocates agreed that there were some clear commonsense ways to protect oneself and one’s family from potentially fouled waters.

“Pay attention to the rain,” said Joe Payne of the Friends of Casco Bay in South Portland. “It is not advisable to swim after a rainstorm,” because storm water runoff is the leading known source of water pollution.

Payne also offered a recommendation to homeowners: “Keep all the water that falls on your property on your property” by taking steps to prevent runoff.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.