Problems on Stevens Brook also faces lakes

By Colin Holme

LEA Assistant Director

A recent water quality analysis of the Stevens Brook has described troubling findings. The town of Bridgton hired engineering firm Woodard and Curran to test for E.coli and optical brighteners along Stevens Brook, which revealed both of these pollutants in the stream. This has sparked public concern, and was brought up in the Dec. 14 Bridgton News article, “Fresh street look, but is a major problem brewing?”

E.coli is a type of harmful bacteria that can cause mild to severe intestinal issues and, while it is associated with all warm blooded animals, high levels in waterbodies is often indicative of the presence of human waste. There is no safe level of E.coli in drinking water and a single reading over 235 cfu (colony forming units) is reason for beach closure under state guidelines.

Optical brighteners, also called fluorescent whitening agents, are chemicals used in laundry detergents to enhance the colors of clothes during the washing process. When these compounds are found in fresh water, the source is almost always connected to humans.

The study looked at eight sites along the entire length of the Stevens Brook on six separate dates in August and September. With the exception of the first two sites on the brook, (next to Shorey Park and across from the Magic Lantern) all other downstream locations had elevated concentrations of optical brighteners and E.coli levels were routinely over 235 cfu. These combined findings point to failing septic systems along the brook.

For those unfamiliar with the Stevens Brook, it runs from the outlet of Highland Lake, winds its way through downtown Bridgton for about two miles and then empties into Long Lake just above Salmon Point.

Downtown Bridgton is served by public sewer, but many properties do not attach to this infrastructure and instead rely on individual septic systems. These systems are what the vast majority of Mainers use and consist of a septic tank that drains to an attached leach field. However, they need to be installed correctly, maintained (regular pumping of the septic tank), and they only have a lifespan of about 30 years.

Although I have seen it, not many people swim in Stevens Brook so maybe these results don’t seem so alarming. However, let’s not forget that Stevens Brook is continually moving, flushing itself out, and flowing directly into Long Lake. Still, a little laundry detergent and elevated levels of E.coli regularly flowing into Long Lake might not be alarming to folks who don’t live on the lake. But this ignores the larger issue: many septic systems throughout the Lake Region are slowly leaking pollutants into our lakes and streams.

Over the years at Lakes Environmental Association, I have visited over 800 waterfront properties and I have long ago lost track of how many people could not tell me where their septic system is located or how it works. Older septic systems are commonplace on lakefront properties, and many of the systems are close to the water. Sometimes, there is no obvious evidence of a problem, but still sewage may be overwhelming the system and getting into the lake. Just imagine what happens on the Fourth of July when all the relatives are up enjoying a weekend holiday at the lake… The system is inundated by the toilet being regularly flushed and all the extra showers that come with friends and relatives. You might want to think again about that “refreshing” swim in the calm morning waters of the lake. Morning is, of course, when water use is highest. Instead, I would encourage you to get an E.coli test.

Last spring, Representative Gary Hilliard of Belgrade introduced a bill to require septic inspections for systems older than three years on properties within the shoreland zone. This proposed law would have helped keep our inland waters clean and is similar to a regulation already in place along coastal waterfront. Although the bill passed both houses of legislature, it was unfortunately vetoed by the governor and the house did not have enough votes to overturn the veto.

I am hopeful that we will see other versions of this bill in the future that are tied to uniform inspection requirements but for now it appears we need to rely on education and self-interest to keep our waters clean. For everyone’s sake, maybe it’s time we all paid a little more attention to these systems. After all, no one wants to swim in a toilet bowl.

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