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Bill to Protect Maine Lakes Sparks Disagreement
02/19/2014   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Lake protection advocates lined up today in support of a bill that would restrict the applications of chemicals and soils within 25 feet of a lake, restrict water quality impacts from roads and establish clear responsibilities for the Department of Environmental Protection's lake protection program. But there are questions about how these measures will be funded. And as Susan Sharon reports, the DEP itself opposes the bill.

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It's called an "Act to Protect Maine Lakes," but supporters say it could just as easily be titled "An Act to Protect More Than 52,000 Jobs." That's how many jobs are associated with the 6,000 lakes across the state - lakes that some researchers say are being threatened by water quality.

A recent study by the University of Maine found that the clarity in Maine's lakes has declined since 1995. And the federal Environmental Protection Agency currently lists 10 percent of them as impaired.

"Some have suffered significant declines from algae blooms caused by excessive nutrient pollution. Others are threatened by invasive species, including milfoil," says Democratic Rep. Jeff McCabe, who is the director of Lake George Regional Park in Skowhegan and Canaan.

McCabe is also the sponsor of the lake protection bill. He says he's concerned that the lake protection program at the DEP is weaker today than it was five or 10 years ago.

"DEP is doing less research on our lakes, less collaboration with our teachers, our students, less interaction with lake associations, less engagement with lake protection professionals across the state," he said.

And while McCabe told members of a legislative panel that the purpose of his testimony was not to point fingers or assign blame, his bill does call for clarification of DEP's responsibilities in the lake protection program in the areas of education, research, enforcement, water quality and partnership development.

It also calls for filling job vacancies in the DEP's Lake Assessment Program and training for municipal code enforcement officers in shoreland zoning. But Michael Kuhns, director of Land and Water Quality, told lawmakers that the department does provide education and technical assistance in a myriad of ways that can help protect watersheds. And it already partners with more than 100 lake associations, municipalities, soil and water conservation districts and other groups.

He says misinformation about the department, its funding and its staffing levels is distorting the picture of lake protection efforts. "The supposed 'decimation' of funding from state programs that protect Maine lakes has been supposedly subjected to cuts over the three years - this is simply not true," he said.

For example, Kuhns says last year the Legislature approved the DEP's request to provide more money in the budget to fund bureau positions whose work is to further protect Maine's watersheds. As for suggestions that there's inadequate staffing to complete work, Kuhns says that's not the case.

"The department staff continue to complete our important work, watershed wide, in all aspects of watershed protection, compliance and enforcement," he said.

But several committee members pressed Kuhns to explain why so many lake association representatives in support of the bill have a different point of view, and why there are still unfilled jobs at the department.. Democratic Rep. Paul McGowan of York said he was moved by all the testimony about diminished water quality to ask Kuhns to characterize the extent of the problem. Kuhns replied that he has seen a couple of lakes with problems.

"So on a state basis, you don't see evidence to say that our lakes are in trouble?" McGowan pressed.

"I think we're holding our own with lake water quality," Kuhns responded.

The panel is expected to take up further details of the bill in a work session next week.



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