Sustaining Quality of Place in the Saco River Estuary Through Community Based Ecosystem Management
After several decades of clean-up efforts, the Saco River Estuary is coming back to life. Surrounding communities are now turning to the estuary as a source of renewal and economic development, but new pressures are emerging, including increasing coastal development. Understanding how these pressures affect the estuary and developing new tools to help stakeholders safeguard its health is the focus of an SSI project led by University of New England (UNE) researchers Pamela Morgan, associate professor, Department of Environmental Studies, and Christine Feurt, Director of the Center for Sustainable Communities.
Why this project
Once polluted by tanneries, wastewater and garbage, the Saco River Estuary is again clean enough for boating, fishing and other recreation. Birds and fish are returning and surrounding marshes host at least nine rare plant species. Despite this recovery, however, new problems may affect the estuary’s health, including increasing development, pollution such as E. coli bacteria, invasive species such as Phragmites reeds, and sea level rise.
The cities of Saco and Biddeford, as well as local business owners, state and federal agencies, conservation groups and local residents are concerned about threats to the estuary’s health, but they lack adequate tools, information and opportunities to network to find ways address them.
Student researchers worked this winter identifying and then selecting marsh study sites along the Saco River (above).
Connecting Knowledge With Action
The SSI research team, which includes scientists from the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, is gathering extensive field data on the estuary, including water quality indicators such as bacteria and nitrogen levels; fish, plant and bird species; and other indicators of the estuary’s health. They will compile and analyze this information to create a first ever “report card” that grades the estuary’s health on key indicators stakeholders and researchers have identified, including water quality, invasive plants, fish species, and other criteria.
When completed, the report card will provide stakeholders, researchers and others with a new tool to help make and improve policy decisions affecting the estuary, monitor its health, inform and educate local citizens about how their actions and decisions affect the estuary, and better protect its future. The team also is mapping land use in the shoreland zone and studying potential connections between the extent of development and the potential effects on organisms in the estuary. In addition, the researchers are mapping what the estuary might look like under various sea level rise scenarios, which could help conservation groups prioritize land where tidal marshes might need to migrate in the future.
As this work continues, social scientists and students on the team are working to build a social network of stakeholders who can care for the estuary now and into the future. In addition to helping to sustain the estuary, this research could serve as a model for other efforts to bring together scientists and stakeholders to achieve similar goals.