Quality of Place in the Saco River Estuary

student taking notes in estuarySustaining Quality of Place in the Saco River Estuary Through Community Based Ecosystem Management

Institution: University of New England
Sponsor: National Science Foundation through the Sustainability Solutions Initiative

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.

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.

Team Members

  • Christine Feurt, UNE (team leader)
  • Pamela Morgan, UNE (team leader)
  • Michael Daley, UNE
  • Noah Perlut, UNE
  • Michelle Steen-Adams, UNE
  • James Sulikowski, UNE
  • Stephen Zeeman, UNE
  • Jacob Aman, Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve
  • Jeremy Miller, Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve


  • Biddeford Saco Chamber of Commerce and Industry
  • Blandings Park Wildlife Sanctuary
  • City of Biddeford and municipal boards
  • Maine Department of Environmental Protection
  • Maine Drinking Water Program, Department of Health and Human Services
  • Maine Geological Survey
  • Maine State Planning Office
  • Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Saco River Corridor Commission
  • Saco River Salmon Club
  • Saco Valley Land Trust
  • Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission
  • Town of Saco and municipal boards
  • Local residents and business owners


Supported by National Science Foundation award EPS-0904155 to Maine EPSCoR at the University of Maine.