A specific strain of bacteria — enterococci — has been vexing stewards of Norton Pond for two years, as volunteer scientists and other sleuths have hunted for its source along the banks of the pond and its tributary streams.

Now they are asking property owners along the pond to help them by allowing a team to inspect home septic systems within certain sub-watersheds of the larger Megunticook watershed. The 133-acre Norton Pond is fed by the larger 5,000 acre watershed that begins on Moody Mountain and at Moody Pond, and itself feeds into Megunticook Lake, separated by a narrow and shallow channel. Both the pond and the lake are considered fragile, but with 87 cottages rimming Norton Pond, and more homes sited farther ashore in the watershed, the stewards have been proactive in keeping the shallow pond clean.

The enterococci bacteria itself is not harmful; however, it is an indicator of warm blooded animal life, and a clue that other potential pathogens that can make humans sick may be lurking. An informal task force consisting of volunteers with the Megunticook Watershed Association, Partners in Monitoring and town officials want to clean the pond to protect public health.

They also want to prevent the full-blown algal blooms that have choked freshwater ponds and lakes in Maine periodically over the decades. Those blooms are evidenced by large, green — neon green, dirty green, muddy green — scummy growth that can also irritate the skin and instigate medical problems. Algal blooms deplete oxygen supplies in fragile lake environments, raise the temperature of the water and set off a domino effect of destruction.

Norton Pond has had three minor algal blooms in the past five years.

In 1992, the bottom of Chickawaukie Pond, which spans Rockport and Rockland town lines, was sprayed with aluminum sulfate and sodium aluminate to block the release of phosphorous, which can lead directly to algal blooms. It was a defensive move used in other Maine lakes, first in 1978, to remedy pollution that had been caused, in part, by phosphates from laundry detergent, dirt from road construction, and fertilizers and sewage from faulty septic systems that ran directly into the water. This had caused a large and annual algal bloom in Chickawaukie, formerly one of the state’s prettier great blue ponds.

Today septic systems of the 87-plus cottages lining Norton Pond are, for the most part, newer, but lake stewards, including the 300 members of the Megunticook Watershed Association (comprising mostly owners of cottages on Megunticook Lake and Norton Pond), are increasingly vigilant about protecting water quality. The town of Lincolnville is also stepping in, concerned about public health.

The hunt for enterococci

For two years, Rob Lovell, a former Camden Hills Regional High School science teacher who initiated the student water testing program Partners in Monitoring, along with Lake Warden Ken Bailey, and Paul Leeper, president of the watershed association, have been leading the effort to track down the source of the sometimes drastically high readings of enterococci. They have tromped up streams in cold spring rainstorms, and during the buggiest months of the year, gathered water samples and driven them to the lab at Aqua Maine in West Rockport for analysis. From the readings, they have been able to deduce the origin of the bacteria.

Some readings in certain spots on Norton Pond have been drastically high. While the acceptable level of this type of bacteria in freshwater is 62 colonies per 100 milliliters of water, counts have run as high as 2,400 colonies per milliliter.

This strain especially likes to clump together, according to Maine Healthy Beaches biologist Esperanza Stancioff. This was one of the things she explained to a group of 75-plus citizens, most of them Norton Pond shorefront property owners, who gathered Aug. 5 under the bandstand at Breezemere Park to talk about the high bacteria readings.

Enterococci also likes to stick close to other particles, Stancioff said.

“That can explain why there are high readings in some places,” she said. “The bacteria does not travel uniformly.”

Enterococci bacteria, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, will not make people sick, but samples show that bacteria levels in Norton Pond are above the safety limit. With that, there is an increased probability of people contracting water-borne illnesses, such as gastrointestinal illnesses, ear, nose and throat infections, flu-like symptoms and skin rashes. Those with compromised immune systems generally have a greater risk of getting sick. If enterocci bacteria is present, it usually means other bacteria or pathogens are present.

So far, the informal bacteria task force, which has sampled water streams that run up to Petunia Pump in Lincolnville Center, has ruled out that the bacteria originates at the Lincolnville Central School.

“We have not found an issue with the school as of yet,” Bailey said at the Breezemere Park meeting, which was convened by the lake association. Citizens gathered under the bandstand roof, some with their own chairs, others leaning against the rails or settling down onto the floor, while Bailey, Leeper, Town Administrator David Kinney, and others explained why the effort to protect the pond was under way.

The volunteers did establish last summer that one set of high readings originated with a faulty septic system at the north end of the pond, which was resolved.

They also admit that wildlife can contribute to the problem.

“The geese are an issue,” said Bailey, citing a study that said one adult goose can produce 1 to 2 pounds of waste per day. He has initiated an egg hunt for the past few years to control the number of Canada geese making Megunticook Lake their home. Last spring, he removed 95 eggs. Bailey has state and fedeal permits to remove eggs from certain local waters.

“We always leave a few behind,” Bailey said. “We’re not trying to eliminate the critters, just keep the population in check.”

He semi-deputized those gathered at the bandstand to help look for nests next spring. Not to destroy the eggs, he cautioned; just to find them and let him know their location.

Appeal to homeowners

As water testing continues, the town of Lincolnville has sent a letter to land owners along Norton Pond, asking for their help.

“Lincolnville, in partnership with the Megunticook Watershed Association, is proposing to conduct additional monitoring of the water quality at various locations within the Norton Pond watershed and a more thorough investigation (a sanitary survey) in several sub-watershed areas of the pond,” the letter said. “This work will primarily be conducted in the month of August but may continue through early fall.”

The letter requests permission for monitoring teams to test home septic systems using dye tablets and/or colored liquid that is flushed down the toilet. Then the team would inspect around the septic system several days later to look for possible malfunctioning.

“We request your cooperation in this important task to protect and preserve Norton Pond, protect public health, and ultimately maintain a clean and thriving community,” the letter said.

At the Aug. 5 meeting, Leeper described the geologic character of Norton Pond, which has been filling in over eons.

Lincolnville’s comprehensive plan said: “Although Norton Pond occupies only 133 acres, it drains an area of more than 5,000 acres. Many people consider Norton Pond and Megunticook Lake a series of long fragile ponds. Water is flushed through Norton Pond more than four times a year, quadruple the flush rate of Coleman Pond. The water level of Norton and Megunticook rose substantially in the mid-1800s when owners of the woolen mills dammed the Megunticook River near Molyneaux Road in Camden. A total of 87 cottages are located along the shores of Norton Pond, many very close to the water. Approximately 10 percent of the cottages are occupied year-round.

“The robust real estate market during most of the 1980s resulted in a substantial number of building permits being issued for new structures, and the renovation and winterization of many older cottages on both Norton Pond and Megunticook Lake.

“The pond and lake support a variety of fish, including large and small mouth bass, horn pout, pike, salmon and trout. Fishing is a popular year-round sport. The lakes are stocked twice a year by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in cooperation with local conservation organizations.”

At the Aug. 5 meeting, Leeper suggested that Norton Pond residents survey their own properties. He said they could collect water runoff from gutters into rain gardens, establish a vegetative buffer between the lawn and water, and avoid applying fertilizer on the grass. “If everyone did all those little things, in my professional opinion, we would reduce phosphorus levels,” he said.

Andy Harris, who works with septic systems, also suggested that homeowners have their tanks pumped.

“It’s pretty straightforward: what you put into it is what is going to come out,” he said. “Do not put medications down the toilet.”

“You cannot pump your septic tank too frequently,” said Kinney. “And it will save the life of your field.”