New Bill to Protect Water Quality in the Presumpscot (and Beyond)

Fifty years after the passage of the Clean Water Act, our fight to protect clean water in Maine continues.

There was a public hearing on February 28 on LD 1964, a bill to reclassify certain waterways in Maine to reflect their improved status.

This happens every three years, when the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) reviews the waters of the state and recommends changes to water quality status based on field data. This year, the DEP recommended reclassifying several waters with important trout and salmon habitat, including the South Branch Sandy River, Orbeton Stream, Little Narraguagus River, and the West Branch Penobscot River above Ambajejus Lake based on improved water quality data. We strongly support their recommendations. Once a water is listed at a higher level of water quality, every effort is made to keep it that way; activities that would pollute or otherwise degrade those waters are discouraged or restricted.

But one waterway that Maine Audubon has a particular interest in is missing from the list. An amendment to LD 1964 would also reclassify a stretch of the lower Presumpscot River, which flows through our backyard at Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth. It was once considered among the dirtiest rivers in the state, but has improved significantly in recent decades. Substantial efforts to revive the river included the removal of the Smelt Hill Dam in 2002 and additional restoration work upstream from there, initiated by multiple partners in the region and supported by Maine Audubon.

We have been watching the river revive ever since – spotting ducks, herons, osprey, eagles, and sandpipers along its shores near Gilsland Farm, and celebrating the return of alewives from the ocean. We have delighted in seeing first-hand how the river has gone from being intensely polluted to today’s much cleaner and more vibrant waterway. It is thrilling to see the fish return and also see people boating, birding, fishing, and swimming where previously the river was shunned. The river provides our educators and students the opportunity to teach about water quality, riparian habitat, and the connections between the upper watershed, the lower watershed, and Casco Bay.

Over the past several years, Friends of Presumpscot River have conducted water quality testing on the lower sections of the river, and based on the data they collected, have requested a reclassification from a Class C (lower) to a Class B (higher) water. We believe the Friends have demonstrated that this stretch of river already meets or exceeds Class B standards nearly all the time, and we support all efforts to keep it that way – or even improve it – in the future.

The hearing on February 28th in front of the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources featured a strong showing of support from those in support of water quality protection, including the Atlantic Salmon Federation, Maine Rivers, the Nature Conservancy, and Friends of Casco Bay. The Committee will discuss and likely vote on this bill on Wednesday, March 2.

Maine Senator Ed Muskie was instrumental in passing the Clean Water Act 50 years ago this year. Maine’s waterways have made some remarkable recoveries thanks to his actions, and now it is time to recognize and codify that progress.