In response to residents’ concerns about the impact of pollutants on the Medomak River, state officials were invited to speak to the public on Tuesday, April 12.
Concerns about the state of the river have come to a head in Waldoboro in the past several weeks, but the importance of the river’s economic viability has spurred efforts to tackle the problem of pollutants over the last few years.
The river employs roughly 150 shellfish harvesters and was responsible for approximately $2.2 million in revenue in 2015.
Following requests from the town’s shellfish committee, the Medomak Water Quality Task Force was formed to monitor the river with the ultimate goal being to isolate and better understand the pollution sources contributing to the impaired water quality within portions of the Medomak River.
Phil Garwood, who works in the Division of Water Quality Management of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, said the task force was formed in 2012 and the group’s first field season was 2013.
He said the group works in several different ways to attack the problem of pollutants in the Medomak, including going house-to-house to talk with residents about their septic systems and water sampling for bacteria.
Prior to the task force’s involvement, Garwood said the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry had worked with local farmers to institute best management practices limiting agricultural impact on streams discharging into the Medomak River.
“The bacteria numbers had already started coming down from some of the agricultural operations before we even started our work,” Garwood said.
The task force itself is a collaborative effort including officials from DEP; the Maine Department of Marine Resources; the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; the Waldoboro town office; the Waldoboro Shellfish Committee; the Medomak Valley Land Trust; and the Waldoboro Utility District.
“The land trust was really vital to this project. They provided a lot of volunteers to help with the sampling and they handled the public education side of things for us,” Garwood said.
According to Maine Department of Marine Resources spokesman Jeff Nichols, for purposes of shellfish harvesting, the Medomak River is classified as a conditional river, meaning if an inch of rain falls in a 24-hour period, the conditional portions of the Medomak are closed to clamdiggers for nine days.
Nichols said this closure period is to allow for the natural flushing of fecal pollution from the overlying waters of the clam flats and allow for the natural purging of bacteria from shellfish in the area.
During his presentation, Garwood illustrated the economic importance of the conditional area to local clammers.
“The most productive part of the estuary is the conditional,” Garwood said.
Garwood said in rainy years the available days for clamdiggers can be cut in half.
“It’s basically like laying people off, half the time,” Garwood said.
Garwood said the sampling work done by the task force went up to Medomak Pond, an area approximately halfway up a watershed that extends to Appleton and Jefferson.
Garwood said there are two types of bacteria involved in the study, with the DMR testing for fecal coliforms and the DEP lab set up to test for E. coli, one of the fecal coliforms.
He said in 2013 the program was started in earnest and as the task force found problems with pollutants, it brought them to attention of the town’s code enforcement officer. Most of the problems had been corrected.
According to the presentation, the worst hot spot in 2013 was by Winslow’s Mills near a seaweed plant, where cracks in the plant’s condenser were found to be a key cause of bacterial growth.
Following the replacement of the faulty condenser, bacteria levels fell back to normal rates.
“That discharge is taken care of,” Garwood said.
He also said in 2014 routine sampling was ongoing and in June, dogs trained to pinpoint human-based pollutants were brought in to investigate the village area.
Garwood said the results of the search were not consistent with projections as the dogs did not hit on the polluted samples, indicating the cause of pollutants was not human waste and leading to further investigation.
Moving forward, Garwood said the task force will keep working to pinpoint ongoing sources of pollutants.
He said while at the town landing the source is likely dog waste, other areas in town, including streams by Pine Street, need further investigation.
“I walked those properties. There was no dog poop on the lawn, there was no sign of a pipe or any kind of waste coming out on the ground or anything,” Garwood said.
Garwood said smoke tests were conducted in conjunction with the town’s utility district to see if smoke was coming from anywhere but a vent pipe, indicating a potential source of contamination.
Nothing was found with the smoke test and Garwood said a further test could be putting dye in the sewer to see if the source of waste is coming out of pipes that are located somewhere under the water.
He said pollutants to the conditional portion of the Medomak River seem to be a landscape-wide problem and, though he doesn’t know for sure, he suspects the source of pollutants is not human waste.
“That can be a really difficult thing if it is something like dog waste on people’s property. That is a really hard thing to change. It’s easier if that house is a problem or that farm is a problem. You can fix those and clean up the problem, but when you have got things all over the landscape it’s really difficult,” Garwood said.
He also said even if it isn’t human waste it may be hard to pinpoint the source.
“All mammals and birds are going to defecate, so they are going to be a potential source,” Garwood said.
Garwood said that since wildlife are often more spread out than domestic animals, they can have less impact in terms of waste, however, some wild animals, including ducks, geese, and turkeys, can create large volumes of waste.