Protect the Ogunquit River Watershed

Protect the Ogunquit River Watershed

The Ogunquit Conservation Commission, the Town of Ogunquit, FB Environmental Associates, and Maine DEP are working together on continual water quality initiatives, including the Ogunquit River Restoration Project Phase I, Phase II and Coastal Communities Grant, to improve water quality and reduce bacteria levels in the Ogunquit River watershed and at its public beaches.

Background / History

The Ogunquit River Watershed Restoration Project aims to improve and protect water quality in the Ogunquit River and its estuary. The estuary is listed as one of Maine’s impaired waterbodies due to high levels of fecal indicator bacteria from pet, wildlife, or human waste, which can enter the river in stormwater runoff or from malfunctioning septic systems and leaky sewer lines. The public beaches in Ogunquit experience heavy recreational use, including swimming, boating, fishing, and recreational clamming, by well over a million residents and visitors each year. The Ogunquit River watershed is rich in diverse, rare and endangered plant and animal species documented by the Maine DIFW and the Maine Natural Areas Program.

Watershed Information

The Ogunquit River watershed is an approximately 21 square mile coastal southern Maine watershed located in Ogunquit, South Berwick, York, and Wells, Maine. The river is tidally-influenced downstream of the Route 1 crossing and flows through salt marshes before emptying into the Gulf of Maine behind Ogunquit’s 3.5- mile barrier beach.

The Ogunquit River (Class B) and its estuary (Class SB) have experienced persistent bacteria contamination from unidentified sources attributed to nonpoint source pollution from the watershed. As a prominent coastal community, the Town of Ogunquit recognized these bacteria impairments in their waterways as a threat to public health and their economic well-being and has since taken action.

Ogunquit River Restoration Project Phase I

The purpose of the Ogunquit River Watershed Restoration Project (ORWRP) Phase I was to reduce bacteria levels in the Ogunquit River to improve the existing water quality impairment and help the River attain Class SB water quality standards, and reduce the number of beach closures near the outlet.

The project addressed several key problems related to fecal indicator bacteria contamination:

  • Treated polluted stormwater runoff from residential, commercial, and town-owned properties using best management practices (BMPs), including an infiltration trench, buffer plantings, and rain barrels at two residential properties, two FocalPoint bioretention cells at the Lower Lot parking area, and rain gardens at the Dunaway Community Center and Town Lyne Motel
  • Investigated possible sewer line leaks and septic system malfunctions by smoke testing sewer lines and storm drain systems near three bacteria hotspots (no issues found) and by updating a septic system database for the watershed
  • Completed a pre-project intercept survey, along with other outreach activities such as public presentations, a residential social, a garden tour, and two NPS workshops (on proper organic lawn care)

Funding for this project, in part, was provided by the US Environmental Protection Agency under Section 319 of the Clean Water Act. The funding is administered by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in partnership with the EPA.

View the Phase 1 Report (PDF).

Coastal Community Grant

Funds awarded for this project in 2015-16 via the Maine Coastal Communities Grant aided in the following for the Ogunquit River watershed:

Broadened the scope of work beyond Ogunquit’s municipal borders to include the other watershed towns of Wells, South Berwick, and York, as well as regional land trusts, the Mt. Agamenticus to the Sea Conservation Initiative and the Great Works Regional Land Trust. 

Expanded an existing septic and sewer database to include all properties within the watershed and prioritized high risk areas for targeted outreach. 

Expanded the annual baseline water quality monitoring program to 1) identify and bracket potential sources of and changes in bacteria across seasons in “hotspot” areas; 2) investigate the upstream freshwater portion of the watershed (OR-06 subwatershed) for potential nonpoint source pollution sites; and 3) analyze a subset of samples for source-specific DNA markers (human, dog, and bird). Ogunquit River watershed monitoring in 2016 demonstrated that fecal contamination is persistent in the known “hotspot” areas, particularly during wet weather across all seasons. This suggests that stormwater sources, likely from a combination of wildlife and dog waste (as demonstrated by DNA analyses), may be the dominant source of fecal contamination to the Ogunquit River. 

This report was prepared for the Town of Ogunquit under awards CZM NA14NOS4190066 and NA15NOS4190208 to the Maine Coastal Program from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the Department of Commerce.

View the 2015 to 16 Maine Coastal Communities Grant page.

Ogunquit River Restoration Project Phase II

As a continuation of Phase I work, the purpose of the Ogunquit River Watershed Restoration Project - Phase II was to help reduce bacteria levels in the Ogunquit River and minimize the number of beach advisories near the outlet. Phase II addressed several key problems, including polluted stormwater runoff, septic system issues, and improper pet waste disposal. Implementing structural BMPs at the Main Beach parking lot helped reduce bacteria, sediment, and other pollutant loading to the river and Riverside Beach. Phase II built on the public outreach program developed under Phase I, but with a targeted focus on raising awareness about proper septic system maintenance, particularly in residential neighborhoods around Leavitt Stream, and proper pet waste disposal throughout the watershed. The overall goal of the watershed-based management plan for the Ogunquit River and its estuary and beaches is to attain Class B and Class SB standards for fecal indicator bacteria. Reducing bacteria in the tidal portion of the Ogunquit River is particularly important for public health as the area is used for swimming, boating, surfing, and recreational clamming.

Phase II involved a wide range of partners, including the Town of Ogunquit, Maine DEP, Ogunquit Conservation Commission, Maine Healthy Beaches, Great Works Regional Land Trust, and FB Environmental Associates. These partners served on the Steering Committee, which met three times throughout the course of Phase II of this project to advance tasks and track progress.

Funding for this project, in part, was provided by the US Environmental Protection Agency under Section 319 of the Clean Water Act. The funding is administered by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in partnership with the EPA.

View the Phase II Final Report page.

Stormwater & the Health of the Ogunquit River

Stormwater runoff is water that doesn’t soak into the ground during a rainstorm and flows overland until it reaches a water body. It can collect a variety of pollutants, such as heavy metals, winter road sand and salt, pesticides, petroleum products, animal and human waste, fertilizers, and sediment. These cumulative impacts pose the greatest threat to Ogunquit River’s aquatic life, water quality, and habitats. Compounding this problem is the removal of vegetative buffer areas along waterways by those desiring water views. As a result, the developed areas surrounding the river and its tributaries continue to contribute to water quality degradation. Conservation practices slow the flow of stormwater runoff and reduce the number of pollutants contaminating groundwater and surface waters.

View the Threats to Water Quality page.

How Can You Help Improve Water Quality in the Ogunquit River

Individually, small amounts of pollutants may seem insignificant, but collectively they add up to create the largest source of pollution to the Ogunquit River. How can we keep these pollutants out of the Ogunquit River? By reducing the source of pollutants and by capturing the storm water before it moves off your property by using conservation practices, such as:

  • Use nature’s own filtration system: Plant ribbons of trees, shrubs and/or ground-cover to intercept and infiltrate storm water runoff. 
  • Direct water from roofs and driveways into a stable vegetated area where the dirt can get trapped and the water can soak in. 
  • Maintain your septic system. Pump your system’s tank every two to three years. Systems are made to be pumped out periodically to keep the solids in the tank from being carried into the leach bed where it clogs the pipes and soils creating a malfunction. 
  • Pick up after pets. Pet waste should be disposed of in the garbage or a pet waste composter. 

View the Water Quality Sampling Reports archive.

View the Additional Resources page.