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Project Aims to Reverse Decline of Maine's Belgrade Lakes
08/23/2012   Reported By: Irwin Gratz

The Belgrade Lakes region is one of those Maine locales that's a natural for summer recreation: verdant greenery surrounding seven inter-connected lakes. Keeping those lakes healthy is the subject of a concerted effort by the state, local lake associations, and, as Irwin Gratz found out, some university professors and their students.

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Project Aims to Reverse Decline of Maine's Belgrad Listen

Belgrade Lakes 008

People are drawn to the area by its seven lakes, whose cool, mostly clear water is perfect for boating, fishing or just jumping in on a hot day. But there's a problem.

"They're in slow, but steady decline," says Colby College chemistry professor Whitney King. King and his students have been monitoring the Belgrade lakes for 20 years. In that time, they've watched runoff, particularly phosphorus, reduce the clarity of the water.

The worry is that continued degradation could lead to algae blooms that would make parts or all of the lakes unattractive for recreation. "One of the things we know from environmental change is that it's subtle, 'til it hits a critical tipping point," King says. " And then it can be very abrupt. And that gets everyone's attention. And we want to avoid those abrupt changes."

Belgrade Lakes 007King is the project manager for the Belgrade Lakes Sustainability Project, a National Science Foundation-funded effort trying to learn all it can about the factors that contribute to the decline in water quality.

"All right folks, let's get started because it's a beautiful day, and, um, we're sitting inside," King says at a recent gathering. At meetings like this one, King, officials from the several lakes associations in the area, and others gather for an update on the project.

"One of those is we've completed the shoreline photos for North Pond and Long Pond," King says. "We're going to be continuing shoreline photos in Salmon and McGraw."

Belgrade Lakes 001As part of the effort, they've built the Maine Lakes Resource Center (right) in the center of Belgrade Lakes Village. It's a barn-like structure that plays host to art exhibits and a weekly farmer's market. But the real purpose is education.

"My name is Kathi Wall and i am the Executive Director fot the Maine Lakes Resource Center. What we've been doing here is creating an atmosphere in which the message can be carried to the public about what's important in the lakes, and how to save the lakes and what some of the best practices are that they can do."

The Resource Center building itself serves as a model of best practices. Porous grass pavers allow even heavy rain to percolate down into the ground for filtering. There are buffering plants between the center's back lawn and Belgrade Stream.

"When we designed this building, it was designed to show people that they could develop near a lake without having an adverse impact on it," says Peter Kallin, the retired executive director of the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance. "Every single drop of water that falls on it, plus what lands on the neighbor's roof and on Route 27 out there is filtered through our rain garden system here. And then we have a very sophisticated wastewater treatment plant."

Belgrade Lakes 003Kallin says before any of that water is returned to the lakes, 95 percent or more of its phosphorus has been removed, and the water cooled to a temperature that won't harm fish life.

Water runoff is a product of development, so this year the Belgrade Lakes Sustainability project will issue what's called a statistical abstract of the entire region.

At a recent farmers' market, Colby College students Caitlin Vorlicek and Nick Papanastassiou gather economic data from local shoppers. "We're trying to get out an economic economic study of the Belgrade Lakes watershed," Papanastassiou says.

Their professor, Michael Donihue, says the goal is to get a better understanding of the economy of the region.

"The big challenge we're facing is a lot of the publicly-available data is reported in all kinds of different formats, in some cases totally inconsistent and revised over time," he says. "And this is the challenge that a lot of community service providers face. You know, a lot these people that serve this area depend on grants and those grants require them to publish who their target population is. So one of the things we're going to provide in the abstract is that data that they need in a consistent format."

Donihue hopes to plug the data into computer models that will help government officials understand how the decisions they make about development can affect the quality of the lakes.

Colby Professor Whitney King says arresting the decline of water quality in the Belgrade Lakes system will take a long time. "The important thing is that decline took 50 years and it's going to take another 20 to 50 years to get it back."

The sustainbility project will continue next year with another $90,000 in grant money.

Photos by Irwin Gratz.


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