Report Documents Damage to DEP’s Lake Protection Efforts
The Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) today released an investigative report documenting damage caused to the State of Maine’s lake protection efforts under the Administration of Governor LePage.
Although Maine’s lakes are among our state’s most valuable natural resources, the NRCM report finds that the LePage Administration and current DEP leadership have put our lakes at increased risk by cutting DEP lake protection staff and resources, terminating education and technical assistance, purging DEP’s website of valuable public documents, disrupting the work of DEP scientific and technical staff members, and failing to enforce a Maine law that helps protect lake water quality.
Troubled Waters: Damage to Maine’s Lake Protection Program Under the LePage Administration is based on information gathered from lake protection specialists across Maine and documents secured by NRCM through Freedom of Access Act requests.
“The report finds that Maine’s lake protection efforts have been curtailed, disrupted, and dismantled, and now are at the lowest levels in decades, raising serious questions about whether the DEP can protect the health and integrity of Maine lakes, as required by Maine law,” said NRCM Advocacy Director Pete Didisheim.
The decline in DEP’s lake protection programs comes at a time when the water quality of Maine lakes appears to be deteriorating. New research from the University of Maine shows that the clarity of Maine’s lakes has worsened since 1995. If this trend continues, the impact could be severe for Maine’s economy. Studies show that Maine’s lakes generate at least $3.5 billion in economic activity annually and help sustain 52,000 jobs.
“Maine has some of the highest quality lakes in the nation, but the current administration is undermining the work that needs to be done to keep those lakes clean,” said Didisheim.
The report explains that over the past 40 years, with broad bipartisan support, Maine has adopted laws and programs that have helped protect the clean water in Maine lakes by reducing pollution, curbing the spread of invasive species, fostering school and lake association activities, and promoting best practices on shoreland properties. But that has changed over the past two years as the LePage Administration has drastically curtailed and disrupted DEP’s lake protection work. The report includes seven major findings and urges Maine lawmakers to begin now to reverse the damage.
- DEP Buried Report Showing Success of Lake Protection Law. DEP leadership directed that DEP’s logo be removed from a report showing that Maine’s shoreland zoning law is successfully protecting Maine lakes. At the time the report surfaced, DEP was working to pass a bill that would have weakened shoreland zoning. The report is not on DEP’s website and has never been referred to in DEP testimony.
- DEP Purged Its Website. DEP leadership implemented a DEP website redesign that eliminated 80 percent of the documents previously available to Maine people. DEP leadership used a draconian requirement that all web pages not viewed at least 40 times per month be removed. The data used for document elimination decisions was January through April 2011âmonths when most lake documents are not viewed.
- DEP Lake Protection Staff and Funding Slashed. DEP staff and funding for lake protection are at their lowest levels in decades, raising serious questions about whether the department can fulfill requirements in Maine law. DEP has lost more than 100 years of institutional knowledge held by lake protection staff members who have left in the past two years. DEP has not refilled vacant positions and funding has been cut.
- DEP Terminated Most Lake Education and Technical Assistance. DEP leadership has sharply curtailed interaction of department staff with the public, eliminating most efforts aimed at educating school children, landowners, municipalities, and the public about ways to reduce pollution to Maine lakes.
- DEP Implemented a Gag Order on Its Staff. DEP leadership established a new policy requiring approval before staff may accept any invitation to speak to an outside group, requiring approval of all presentations, and forbidding staff from soliciting any speaking engagements. The policy has stifled communications that have been at the heart of Maine’s successful lake protection efforts.
- DEP Curtailed Involvement in Children’s Water Festivals. DEP drastically curtailed its involvement in annual water festivals that, since 1994 when they were established by the DEP, have helped teach thousands of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders and teachers about issues related to protecting Maine waters.
- DEP Jettisoned Successful LakeSmart Program. In late 2012, DEP abruptly terminated the LakeSmart program that helps waterfront property owners protect lake water quality. DEP failed to provide funding or staff assistance to help transfer LakeSmart to a non-profit.
- DEP Quashed Award-Winning TV Ad in Response to Lawn Care Companies. An award-winning ad designed to educate homeowners about how runoff from yards and driveways can degrade water quality was quickly removed from the DEP website when lawn care and pest control companies complained to Governor LePage. The DEP Commissioner decided that the ads be removed.
- DEP Blocked Scientists from Interacting with Colleagues. DEP leadership has terminated lines of communication between DEP technical staff and their peers. DEP dropped sponsorship of the Maine Water Conference and slashed staff participation by 80 percent. For the first time in 35 years, no one from DEP was allowed to attend the New England Association of Environmental Biologists (NEAEB) conference (important for lake science) and DEP leadership blocked Maine from hosting the 2014 NEAEB meeting.
- DEP Not Adequately Enforcing Lake Water Quality Law. Contrary to a 2007 law, many stores across Maine are not posting a sign designed to discourage the use of phosphorus-containing fertilizers, which threaten lake water quality. DEP appears to be doing little to ensure compliance with this law.
VOICES OF CONCERN
Rebecca Kurtz, Executive Director, Maine Lakes Society
“Maine is defined by its spectacular lakes. They provide 52,000 jobs, ensure the vitality of communities statewide, and are signature assets for residents and visitors alike, a reflection of what we hold dear. That’s why so many people have worked so hard to keep our lakes clean and healthy. All of us depend on DEP to be fully engaged in lake protection, but DEP’s capacity has been severely reduced in the past few years. This trend is not good for Maine or for our lakes, and it needs to be turned around. At the Maine Lakes Society we are confident in our ability to administer the LakeSmart program that DEP transferred to us. But our task would have been much easier and our success much greater if there had been a transition period with funding and staff support.”
Peter Lowell, Executive Director, Lakes Environmental Association
“It’s important to understand that Maine’s lakes are really fragile and we’re heading toward a tipping point on many of them. We are much closer to losing our traditional water quality than most people realize. This is not a time to be complacent. Rather, we should be doing everything possible to stay ahead of the curve in terms of the science, application of best practices, educating our children, and adopting measures and policies that help protect lake water quality. It is vital that DEP be a strong player in lake protection efforts to provide research and stand firm when enforcement measures are called for.”
Matt Scott, former DEP Chief Biologist hired to establish DEP’s lake program in the 1970s; former member of Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection.
“Maine’s lakes are jewels worth billions to our state economy, yet DEP has reduced its programs to educate our children, our future decision makers, about the need to protect Maine’s valuable lake resources. DEP once had a lake program that earned national and international recognition. I was hired to help create that program. It pains me to see what is now happening in terms of lost staff, lost institutional knowledge, vacancies left unfilled, and biologists denied opportunities to connect with their peers. Surely the Administration can do better than this.”
Barb Welch, retired DEP staff member after 36 years in lake protection program; recipient of 2012 Lifetime Achievement in Environmental Education award from the Maine Environmental Educators Association.
“I’m sorry to say that the lake protection program at DEP has been squeezed to a small fraction of what it once was. Over the past three years, a number of very successful initiatives have been scaled back or terminated, including great work that DEP used to do with teachers and school kids. Given the importance of Maine’s lakes to our economy, it seems like a big mistake to be chopping away at DEP’s lake protection work.”
Roy Bouchard, retired DEP lake biologist.
“Maine has a lot to lose if we don’t stay focused on protecting our lakes. As a biologist, I believe this protection requires more than enforcement: it needs a public that understands the sensitivity and value of the resource we all care about. That’s why the free flow of information about our lakes is essential. That used to be one of the foundations of the DEP Lakes Program along with sound, practical lake science, but that’s been compromised by the current administration. Important information has been removed from the DEP website, reports have been buried, and staff has been cut off from communicating with their peers and the public. Even greater long-term damage has resulted from the staff and resources that have been stripped from the Lakes Program, until recently one of the hallmark public services of the DEP as specifically envisioned by the Legislature. These actions undermine Maine’s ability to keep up with the science of our lakes, keep citizens and property owners informed, and to multiply DEP’s efforts by promoting public-private partnerships. At some point, all this could mean that we fail as stewards of the lakes that mean so much to our economy and our people.”
Jane Eberle, member of Belgrade Lakes Association.
“People who love Maine’s lakes should be worried by the findings in this report. Personally, I am most upset by DEP’s removal of so much information from their website and the actions by DEP leadership to block communications between the agency’s technical staff and people across Maine who depend on those experts. Maine has great lake associations, and we value open lines of communication with DEP’s biologists. Hundreds of volunteers contribute thousands of hours in efforts to preserve and protect our lakes and an open partnership with the DEP is critical to those efforts. The gag order imposed by the LePage Administration on DEP staff should be lifted so that they can get back to the important job of providing education, technical assistance, and scientific information to the people who commit so much of their time and energy trying to prevent further degradation of the water quality in our lakes.”
The full report and appendices are available at www.nrcm.org.