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About the Spruce Creek Watershed

The Spruce Creek watershed (HUC Code 01060003) is an ecologically and economically significant estuarine resource in southern Maine supporting a diverse array of recreational and commercial water-based activities. Spruce Creek is classified as impaired, primarily due to bacteria contamination and risks imposed from development.

Spruce Creek drains 9.8 square miles (6,112 acres) in the communities of Kittery and Eliot in the southernmost portion of the State of Maine. Near its confluence with the Piscataqua River which forms the border of New Hampshire, the Creek is a coastal, tide-dominated system with a significant estuarine area approximately 2.25 miles long and a half-mile wide. Ninety percent of the watershed (5,498 acres) is located in Kittery with ten percent (614 acres) located in Eliot. There are 56 miles of shoreline. This watershed is part of the Atlantic Coastal Plain with the land from the coast to several miles inland appearing as flat or gently undulating terrain. Spruce Creek is influenced by the tidal flow from the Piscataqua River and at low tide; approximately 2.5 square miles of clam flats are exposed. The marine environment consists of mud flats, high salt marsh, and ledge. Farther up the estuary toward US Route 1, much of the creek is classified as low salt marsh. This area is rich in marine life, particularly soft shell clams.

In addition to being classified as an Essential Habitat area, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has ranked the shorelines of Spruce Creek as Class B or having regional significance as an important wildlife concentration area based upon diversity and abundance of species. There are spawning scallops at the mouth of Spruce Creek where it enters the inner harbor. Commercial harvesting has taken place in recent years although this practice is threatened by declining water quality. Based on information obtained from regional surveys, the Maine Department of Marine Resources estimates that the commercial value of the clam resources in Spruce Creek at two to nine million dollars annually.

Of the 9.6 square miles of the watershed, 48% of the land area is undeveloped forest, 13% is developed, 12% is farmland, 9% is developed open space, 8% is covered by wetlands, 8% is water, and the remaining 2% is covered by other land uses. An extensive retail outlet corridor serving over 3 million shoppers per year is located along Route 1 and Interstate 95, transecting the Spruce Creek watershed. The west side of the watershed is high density residential, largely served by the Town sewer and containing many impervious surfaces and lawns. The east and north side are mostly rural residential with private septic systems often sited in marginal soils.

Spruce Creek is located in a rapidly developing area of the northeast. From 1990 to 2000 York County population grew at a rate of 13.5%, the highest growth rate in the state of Maine. Development pressure in Kittery has sharply increased recently where the doubling of the average of new construction units has occurred over the past five years. Many individual homes are being sold and upgraded, further stressing their septic systems. Though the retail area along Route 1 has not expanded, some riparian areas remain damaged from initial development and impervious surfaces continue to carry runoff directly into the Creek.

Like most coastal New England communities, Kittery and Eliot draw their existence from the sea and the availability of a good, deep water harbor. These historic seacoast towns consist of economically diverse neighborhoods, working waterfronts, natural habitats and resources, rural landscapes, and commercial places. Kittery also functions as the tourist gateway to Maine. With both I-95 and U.S. Route One entering Maine in Kittery, the community has long played a role in welcoming and servicing both the commercial traveler and the tourist. Over the past fifteen years, this role has greatly changed and expanded with the development of the factory outlet centers along Route One.

Spruce Creek is classified as Class B under the Federal Clean Water Act and the estuary portion "SB" by the State of Maine. Spruce Creek does not meet its state water quality classification based on the results of the recent activities and past monitoring. Water chemistry data for Spruce Creek indicate that high levels of bacteria and toxic substances are entering the creek through stormwater and groundwater sources. The Maine Department of Marine Resources conducted water tests for fecal contamination in the upper reaches in July 2005 and found consistently high readings. At times in the past two years, all sites have exceeded 1100 fecal colonies/ 100 ml and have calculated geometric means greater than 35, which is considered a health risk. Water quality data also indicate low levels of dissolved oxygen at several locations throughout the watershed. These data are collected by State agencies and volunteers with the Spruce Creek Association. All groups follow State approved quality assurance guidelines for the collection of water quality data.

Due to the continued poor water quality, Spruce Creek is listed in Maine's 305(b) be report as impaired under Category 5-B-1: Estuarine & Marine Water Impaired by Bacteria (TMDL required) for nonpoint pollutant sources (suspected sources: two sewage treatment plant outfalls; stormwater; elevated fecals; and nonpoint source pollution). This fragile body of water is also identified by the Maine DEP as a "nonpoint source pollution priority watershed" due to bacterial contamination, low dissolved oxygen, toxic contamination, and a compromised ability to support commercial marine fisheries. Finally, the Spruce Creek watershed is listed by the DEP as one of seven coastal watersheds in the state being "most at risk from development."

Spruce Creek, particularly the tidal portion, is being intensely manipulated and impacted by people's desire to live near the water, have water views, and by the disposal of stormwater. The fragile shoreland surrounding the Creek and its tributaries is currently experiencing water quality degradation due to this development pressure. Immediate treatment of existing sites is crucial for watershed health. The effective way to achieve water protection is to address the issue of cumulative impacts resulting from increasing development and polluted runoff.

To address and quantify these concerns, the Spruce Creek Association and its partners have conducted numerous assessments of the watershed to determine the extent of these environmental threats. The results of these environmental condition studies include the identification of 20 stormwater outfalls discharging high concentrations of pollutants, more than 40 potentially failing septic systems, and as many as 12 non-licensed overboard discharges. A community led watershed survey conducted in 2005 identified 197 sites contributing high levels of polluted runoff to Spruce Creek. A comprehensive riparian habitat assessment conducted in 2006 identified 90 degraded riparian areas. While scientific research assessment of the watershed will continue, project partners have begun to implement measures to restore the watershed.

The SCA, the Town and partners have agreed on a primary objective to improve water quality to open shellfish harvesting areas. While a portion of Spruce Creek has been open to shellfish harvesting in the past, the flats have been closed since 2005 due to poor water quality. In July of 2005 clam samples were found to have very high fecal coliform concentrations. The Creek is currently classified restricted for depuration harvesting only. Additionally, Spruce Creek is one of the sample sites used by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for their study "A Decade of Monitoring Toxic Contaminants along Maine's Coast". The results for the Spruce Creek sampling area show that both lead and mercury are found in above normal levels. Other metals present include silver, cadmium, chromium, copper, nickel, zinc, aluminum, and iron.

Wetlands filter pollutants and sediment from the environment. However, their filtering capacities can be exceeded. Pollution making its way into productive wetlands or estuaries can render shellfish beds unsuitable for harvesting. If the food chain within a wetland and watershed is disturbed, the effects ripple outward into the broader ecosystem. In Kittery, failing septic systems and stormwater runoff from roads, parking lots, lawns, and fields pose the greatest threat to the Spruce Creek's wetlands and watershed. In order to reverse the cumulative impacts aggressive actions need to be taken to remediate past land use and management decisions that are resulting in poor water quality and minimize or prevent future ones.

Spruce Creek Watershed Facts

  • Spruce Creek begins its journey in Eliot where three small, unnamed brooks converge. As it enters Kittery it becomes tidal. After passing under the I-95 and Route 1 bridges, it quickly widens and flows for a full two miles, through the geographic center of Kittery, to the Piscataqua River and from there into the Gulf of Maine.
  • The Creek estuary is fed by six small fresh water streams: Wilson Creek, Fuller Brook, Hill Creek, Hutchins Creek, Crockett's Brook, and Barter's Creek. The Spruce Creek watershed drains 52% of Kittery - 9.6 of 18.5 square miles. There are five different types of freshwater wetlands found in Kittery.
  • The view into Spruce Creek from the Rte 103 Bridge has been designated by the town of Kittery as one of the top scenic feature in all of Kittery. At least three roads have been designated scenic because they look onto \ Spruce Creek.
  • This beautiful but fragile body of water has been identified by the state of Maine as one of the nonpoint source priority watershed due to bacterial contamination, low dissolved oxygen, toxic contamination, and compromised ability to support commercial marine resources.
  • The Spruce Creek watershed is also listed by the DEP as one of seven Coastal watersheds most at risk from development in the state.
  • *Some information from the Spruce Creek Watershed Conservation Strategy Report, one of seven written for Southern Maine watersheds, produced by the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in April 2003.

Please look at these online resources to learn more about restoring and protecting this beautiful and fragile body of water.

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