The Memorial Bridge is seen Friday above the Kennebec River framing a view of downtown Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — A ban on swimming in the Kennebec River, from or adjacent to city properties, has been modified by city officials so competitors in an upcoming triathlon won’t have to break the law to compete in the swimming portion of the race.

The ban dates to at least 1986, when pollution in the river was more of a concern than it is now. However, officials said the ban still serves a purpose even with a now much cleaner Kennebec, as the tidal waters of the river can still be a hazardous place to swim due to currents, changing tides and debris floating downstream.

“That river, especially if you’re unfamiliar, could be quite a dangerous river,” said Earl Kingsbury, the city’s director of community services, whose roles include serving as the inland city’s harbormaster. “At low tide, the currents are tricky. And you still have dams upstream, that have releases, that could create a unique current.”

The ban is only on swimming from or adjacent to city properties, not the entire city. People are free to swim in the river adjacent to private property. However, swimming is effectively banned anywhere where the river is accessible in Augusta because of the city’s geography and extensive city ownership of riverfront lands from just above the Kennebec Arsenal property all the way north between Mill Park and the former Statler mill property to just beyond the third bridge.

City councilors recently voted to allow swimming in the Kennebec but only with written permission from the harbormaster.

Kingsbury brought that proposal to the council when he looked at city ordinances in preparation for the upcoming Ironman 70.3 triathlon July 31, which will include a 1.2-mile swim in the Kennebec River in Augusta. Augusta councilors adopted the change, and waived a normally required second reading in order for the change to take effect before the race, at their June 16 meeting.


Some councilors admitted they had no idea taking a dip in the river in Augusta was illegal.

“This is the first that I hear that swimming is prohibited in the river, what’s the difference between swimming in the river, or in the ocean or in a lake?” Ward 3 Councilor Mike Michaud said. “What is the basis for prohibiting swimming in the Kennebec River in the confines of Augusta?”

The Kennebec River in downtown Augusta is shown on Thursday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Kingsbury and Police Chief Jared Mills said that in addition to concerns about safety due to the tides and current, the river in Augusta is also a designated runway for airplanes, though Kingsbury said he had no recollection of a plane actually landing there.

Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind, former assistant adjutant general of the Maine Air National Guard, said the Kennebec in Augusta is a designated water runway where planes can land, as are other water bodies including China Lake, but said that shouldn’t mean people can’t swim or boat on such bodies of water. He agreed the river can be unsafe for swimmers due to its tricky currents and debris such as logs coming downstream.

“It’s a river — it changes every minute, so it’s not exactly the best place to swim, because there could be debris there, a log floating,” he said. “So, I think that may be why (it was banned), in addition to the old days when it was not exactly clean.”

Kingsbury said the triathletes will enter the river on the west side off Front Street by Calumet Bridge and exit, also on the west side of the river, 1.2 miles downstream in the area of the Greater Augusta Utility District’s treatment plant. He said organizers of the race estimate the top tier of racers will cover that distance in 10 to 15 minutes.

Ducks swim in the Kennebec River in front of Augusta’s East Side Boat Landing on Thursday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

He said the new ability for the harbormaster to waive the swimming ban could also help clear the way for other events in which organizers wish to allow swimming in the river. He said other events could be allowed to have swimming in the Kennebec as long as organizers provide a plan for how they would rescue any swimmers in trouble, show they have liability insurance, and contact appropriate state and local agencies ahead of time.

Mills said the city’s police officers do enforce the ban on swimming if they come across someone swimming in the river, which is a violation that, for much of the downtown section of the river anyway, is fairly easy to spot by anyone driving on one of the bridges that cross the river there. He said it is enforced because it is a safety issue. He said officers do have their own discretion as to what level of enforcement action to take.

He said the worst case scenario for a law-breaking swimmer would be a ticket for a city ordinance violation. General violations of city ordinance are punishable by a fine of not more than $100.

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