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Blossoming Bacteria Force Beach Closures During Hot Summer Stretch

Patty Wight
Maine Public
Highland Lake Beach in Bridgton.

It has been a hot, dry summer, and around southern Maine conditions have been just right for something unpleasant and unhealthy: bacterial contamination. About a half a dozen freshwater beaches in Maine have been forced to close as a result.

While the number of beach closures isn’t large, some experts say the problem will likely get worse in the future as climate change and warmer temperatures make lakes and ponds increasingly enticing to both bacteria and people.

Maine has had its fair share of steamy, hot days this summer. It’s the kind of weather that drives people of all ages into local lakes and ponds for relief.

Highland Lake Beach in Bridgton, just around the corner from Main Street, is small beach with mountain views, and a popular spot. Its popularity may explain, in part, why it has closed twice this summer for high levels of E. coli, a bacteria that’s found in the feces of animals and humans.

“When you put a lot of people in the water in close proximity during very warm conditions in an area which perhaps doesn’t get the best circulation, it’s somewhat inevitable the bacteria in the water will increase,” says Scott Williams, the executive director of Lake Stewards of Maine.

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In other words, when a bunch of swimmers hit calm, freshwater coves, bacteria will likely blossom. Whether it’s the result of toddlers with dirty diapers, other dirty habits or duck droppings, they’ve all been identified as sources of E. coli that have caused beach closures in Bridgton, Otisfield, Oakland and Gray this summer.

Williams says waterfowl typically aren’t the culprits.

“Because generally there are not a lot of waterfowl swimming around in public areas. They’re going to avoid people,” he says.

So what to make of the E. coli contamination at beaches this summer — is it an increasing trend? Don Witherill of the of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection says anecdotally, he doesn’t think so. But the DEP and other water quality organizations monitor the physical and chemical water quality of lakes, not bacteria levels. So there’s no data to know for sure.

“There is no organized approach in the state of Maine, it’s really at the local level,” he says.

It’s up to municipalities to test for E. coli, and not all do.

“I’m going to admit that we were one of the towns that didn’t test on a regular basis. We haven’t had any issues,” says Bridgton town manager Robert Peabody Jr. — that is, no issues until recently.

Peabody says dozens of people got sick after swimming at Woods Pond beach in early July. That turned out to be a different issue — the highly contagious norovirus. But the incident prompted Bridgton to do weekly testing for bacteria. And twice now, levels have been high enough to close Highland Lake Beach.

“It’s a fact of life when you have public beaches,” he says.

A fact of life that people will experience more frequently, says Colin Holme, executive director of the Lakes Environmental Association, which monitors lakes in western Maine. The reason Holme thinks incidences of E. coli contamination will increase? Climate change.

“We know from global studies around the world that average water temperature is rising faster than air temperature,” he says.

In western Maine, Holme says, the surface temperature of lakes increased between 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the past decade. Now, he says, readings regularly hit above the 80 degree mark.

“People are going to be drawn to the lakes to get away from the heat, to cool down. And at the same time, the lakes are going to become a more palatable medium for bacteria. Because the bacteria are going to be able to grow better in warmer water. So you’ve got kind of a double whammy for problems like E. coli,” he says.

So what’s a swimmer to do? Holme — who’s based in Bridgton — says he couldn’t resist taking a dip on a recent day after work.

“It was hot. And I was like, ‘Ooh, Highland. It’s got all that E. coli.’ But I know the E. coli’s gone,” he says.

High levels of E. coli do tend to drop quickly. Which provides comfort for other swimmers too.

“My kids do the summer rec program so they’re here most of the week, and I have no problem with them coming here and swimming,” says Bridgton resident Kat Harju, who has been swimming in Bridgton’s lakes and ponds all her life.

Harju says she appreciates the town’s proactive approach.

“The fact that we tested it and closed it and notified everyone I think is a lot better than other places do,” she says.

And experts say beachgoers can take steps to lower everyone’s risk for E. coli. First, skip the beach if you’re sick. When you do go, use public bathrooms. And if you take the plunge in a crowded swimming area, try to keep water out of your mouth.